“You can only talk about a mechanism once it’s understood what the intended function of the mechanism is,” he says. “If you can figure out what a biological systemlike the visual system has been selected to do, you can start to work on how it does it.”
Changizi’s interest is in discovering why a particular mechanism gets selected to perform a task that a biological method could do. “My research focuses first on why a mechanism happens, and then on uncovering what makes that mechanism optimal.”
Just as optimization is inherent in the systems he studies, it’s also inherent in the process by which Changizi conducts his research, which differs in significant ways from the processes typically followed by many of his colleagues. “I’m cognizant that it’s not likely I will make multiple discoveries of the same magnitude in any given topical area, so in order to optimize my chances as a theorist, I have to constantly change the subject areas I focus on. And I take a specific approach to do that,” he says.
Changizi’s research questions are the product of more than a decade of frequent brainstorming sessions, during which he tries not to aim to solve a specific problem or confine his thinking to any particular discipline, because “the odds of getting a great idea in any given area are very low, so you need to allow your brainstorming travels to go anywhere.” He says he may develop anywhere from 10 to 100 ideas before finding a good one, which he defines as “coherent, interesting, true, testable, and publishable.”
Changizi’s intense research focus extends to disciplining his own mind by avoiding too close associations with specific scientific communities, funding agencies, and academic conferences. This, he believes, minimizes any psychological constraint that might keep him from following the most promising research directions.
“This can make you less likely to go outside your own community to take up other kinds of problems,” he says, “even great, interesting, exciting problemsfor fear of being rejected by your peers.”
He also tries not to let research funding exert too much influence over his work. “Funded research is important, and I do some, but I don’t ever want the dollars to dictate what I’m studying. I don’t want to forget what I was excited about doing before I got the money,” he says.
In fact, Changizi’s role as an outsider allows him to pursue projects that might sound crazy to other researchers. “Some of my best ideas seemed embarrassingly crazy when I first conceived of them,” he says. “[But] they have fueled my most important discoveries.”