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Paul Howard-Jones


Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Paul Howard-Jones and I work at the Graduate School of Education at Bristol University. I am chiefly interested in applying brain science to improve teaching and learning. In particular, I have been carrying out experiments to help find out more about creativity, and how we can foster creativity in the classroom.


Tell us about your childhood - have you always been interested in science?
I think I've been interested in science as far back as I can remember. For most of my childhood I was very keen on chemistry. This was unfortunate for my parents, who had to put up with a lot of nasty smells. Worse than the smells were the explosions!


There were some awful incidents that I'm not particularly proud of. In particular, I managed to blow up one of my friends when I was 14 and still feel bad about it. On the plus side, I have developed a very strong desire for assessing risk in my research - possibly because I learnt very early on that enthusiasm for a scientific outcome can distract you very easily from the dangers along the way.



(By the way: Pete: sorry about the sulphur dioxide poisoning - that was really unnecessary, Clive - sorry about the ammonia and Rob, if you're reading this, I am REALLY REALLY sorry about the red phosphorous).


Why did you get into science?
It's been more in and out really, because I've always seen science as just one way of looking at a question and for me the question comes first. I started to dip in and out of different areas of science as part of trying to find out personal answers. As soon as I'd satisfied my curiosity in one area I got interested in another and moved on.

So, throughout my 20's, I really did nothing except study. I've ended up with qualifications in nuclear engineering, medical physics, psychoacoustics, psychology and education, but by the time I reached 30 I had still never received a pay cheque and was totally broke!


What's been the highlight of your working career so far?
The highlights are always when I cross boundaries. Just today I've given a talk to a group of neurologists who were interested in my brain imaging research on creativity and it was fantastic to make links between some neuropsychiatry and education.

The fact that one can produce work that is of interest in medical as well as educational terms I find very exciting. Of course, paper publications and grant awards make you feel great when they happen, but it is really these more everyday human interactions that are best.


Why do you work in the area that you do?
We are learning so much about the brain now, it just seems crazy that we are not using more of this knowledge to improve education. Also, I think all the big questions (what is it to be human, what is consciousness, what is experience etc) seem to come back to the brain - so it's great to be able to work in that area.


Are you a scientist 24/7?
Well….I guess the faculty to reason scientifically is usually there. But this question summons up an image of a scientist preferring to cut up their pizza with a protractor, while calculating a statistical figure for the probability of rain. (Of course there are some scientists like that, I'm just remembering Dalton who spent so much time pointlessly measuring rainfall.)



But I'd say that the idea of a scientist as someone always entirely analytical and abstracted from the wonder and pain of reality around them is quite out of date.

(A lot of scientists now grapple with questions and experiences that were once the sole domain of artists and poets, the work of other scientists often provides them with a special compassion for the human suffering around them, and there are many situations when scientists have to use their intuition and other "non-scientific" mental faculties to make decisions where uncertainty prevails. All of this seems to fly in the face of the usual stereotype of a scientist as a cognitively cold and reductive being!)


What's your favourite trivial pursuit category?
Never had the time to play it - but it probably wouldn't be sport!


What was the title of your last published paper?
"Ideational productivity, focus of attention and context"


What scientist do you admire from the past?
It would have to be Leonardo da Vinci - someone who resisted being categorized as a scientist or an artist, someone who did it all!


What would you like to be remembered for?
I'm happy not to be remembered for anything. I think it is inevitable that neuroscience will end up influencing education in a big way. For that to be a positive thing, there is going to have to be a lot of communication. Before expiring, I like to feel that I may helped to brake down some of the current barriers to that communication, and been one of those who helped others feel ok about asking questions!

(I hope I'm not remembered as the guy who blew up his mates!)