Marc Wittmann, PhD, studied psychology and philosophy at the Universities of Fribourg, Switzerland, and Munich, Germany. He then went on to receive his PhD at the Institute of Medical Psychology, University of Munich. Marc Wittmann is also a research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas in Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany. Between 2000 and 2004, Marc was the head of the Generation Research Program, Bad Tölz, University of Munich. After that, between 2004 and 2009, Marc Wittmann was a research fellow in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. On top of this, Marc is also the author of the MIT Press book, Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time. In his book, he explains how people choose between savouring the moment and deferring gratification; why impulsive people are bored easily and why their boredom is often a matter of time. I was honoured to speak with Marc, and learn about his reading habits. Please enjoy my interview with Marc Wittmann…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I am a Psychologist and work as a researcher in an institute. I am fortunate that I can work self-dependent. Therefore I can actually study the phenomena of my interest related to time consciousness.
Because I just flew over to Hongkong to give a talk at a conference I needed something fantastically wild that keeps you going for hours while waiting at airports or on the plane. I bought Number9Dream by David Mitchell, a novel which is content-wise and from its language entertaining but also mind-bending. You get immersed into a world full of fantasy and emotion but nevertheless you learn how it is to be a human being.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
Astrid Lindgren’s books about the Bullerby children, first read for us children and then, when we were able to, reading them ourselves. I can hardly remember the storyline but the atmosphere of the books where the Bullerby children explored the world and the adults struck me.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
An archaeologist. For me that was being a time detective, disclosing mysteries of the past.
When did you fall in love with psychology?
Love would definitely be too much. After archaeology I considered philosophy. Actually I started with philosophy but then switched the major to psychology because I saw that one has more of a grip on the fascinating questions surrounding the mind and brain.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
Research-wise I always held on to my ideas and did not compromise such as getting a better and more secure job outside academia or doing boring mainstream stuff within academia. Basically, my whole academic career was based on temporary assignments. I am not sure if my school-aged self would think that to be smart.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
I couldn’t do that. I don’t think that a single book exists that would be so powerful in Psychology or Cognitive Brain Science to function as a mind changer. Actually that is sad to say.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
Anytime, anywhere, any position.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?
Step by step I had a series of Philosophers, Psychologists, and Brain Researchers who brought me on track. Other books were so awful that they also shaped my mind.
What advice would you give to a young aspiring psychologist looking to begin their career?
If you want job safety and a family, be smart and leave academia at the right moment and get a job for grown-ups.
If you had to pick three books that would provide the best introduction to psychology, what would they be and why?
Perhaps: Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio (because it shows how thinking and affect cannot be separated); Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past by Douwe Draaisma (because it is all about memory, time, and self-identity); The Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness by David Gelernter (because there it becomes clear how dramatically our states of mind shift and change from one minute to the next; a fact that is hardly taken into account in research). That is, these books are among the best for an introduction into Psychology but not necessarily as an introduction for Academic Psychology.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
Certain authors of novels were part of certain periods of life which also are connected to a person or two. I always remember fondly the exchanges and outing in high school with my friend Dirk on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Recently, because of its mirroring effect on ourselves and the psychology of politics, books by John Gray such as Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and other Modern Myths, Black Mass.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Like ying and yang, women and men, both are of essence for capturing the whole, whatever that is.
Do you think reading is important?
How can I answer this question? Can one delete this question somehow? I had to read the question …
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. About the life, friendship, and science of Kahneman and Tversky who really changed how we see human behavior.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Real books to touch and smell and scribble in them.
In the world of psychology, what current research studies are you most excited about?
How research is taking up essential questions of mankind by studying again hallucinogens like psilocybin, LSD, or Ayahuasca – in a purely scientific way and nevertheless (or thus?) probing and testing the frontiers of consciousness.
Name a book that you feel everyone would benefit from reading and explain why.
That is impossible. I have so often recommended movies and books. What often happened as reaction is indifference or aversion. Our personality shapes what we like and dislike, books we consider as important or not.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
I was young, just after high school before I started going to University. I was struck by the existential impact of Denial of Death by Ernest Becker.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Novels by Philip K. Dick and Kazuo Ishiguro.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Books are identified and put on a mental list on a weekly basis. My future perspective in that sense is not very extended.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
All the things I would do completely different if I had a second chance…