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‘Normality has a dullness about it’

Neuroscientist Richard Faull lets us in on his best-loved books.

Photo/Clare de Lore

There’s a poster on the wall of Richard Faull’s office with words by which he lives. It starts “This is your life, do what you love and do it often”, and ends “Life is short, live your dream and share your passion”.

Faull, one of the world’s top brain researchers, is the director of the Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland, where he teaches neuro­scientists and oversees world-leading research into diseases of the ageing brain, such as Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. One of five boys, he was born and raised in Tikorangi, a tiny south Taranaki community. He attended the school opposite his parent’s general store, wondered if he’d keep up when he eventually went to New Plymouth Boys’ High School for 7th form, and ended up studying at two of the world’s most prestigious universities, Boston’s MIT and Harvard.

Richard Faull: blessed with a brilliant mind.

Faull and his wife, Diana, who he says has made all his work possible, have five adult children. He’s blessed not only with a brilliant mind but also with an infectious enthusiasm and warmth for his subject and fellow humans.

How much inspiration do you draw from your parents?

What we learnt from working in the shop and delivering groceries to the 100 families we knew was to talk to people and understand them. Mum was the eternal optimist. We never had much money but she always said we were the richest people in the world because we had life, vision and opportunities. All of us five boys have optimism and the humility that comes with it. That experience of working with people has been fundamental to our successes.

You have a brain bank at the Centre for Brain Research. In what way is it unique?

It started when I was asked to look at the brains of people who were thought to have died of Huntington’s. It’s caused by a gene but we don’t know what gene. I worked with a neuropathologist and the pathology is so distinct for Huntington’s that we could tell the families whether or not the gene was present. Most families told us to keep Mum’s brain and keep researching. So now we have a brain bank and we know the history of every brain. Other brain banks diagnose a disease and then use that tissue for research on that specific disease.

Sometimes we ask our families if they’re happy for us [to send brain tissue to researchers in other countries] and they’re overjoyed. Some have said, “Mum’s having the travel in death she never had in life”, or “Dad’s living on forever and contributing to the whole evolution of knowledge”.

One of Faull’s favourite authors: Winston Churchill. Photo/Getty Images

Is it fair to assume your reading is dominated by non-fiction?

Yes! I don’t have time for fiction. I love biographies, the stories of people’s lives. I’m currently reading Peter Williams’ autobiography. He looked after the underdog, so I have total empathy.

One of my great idols is Jacob Bronowski. He wrote The Ascent of Man, which was made into a television programme. He was a Polish Jew with a terrible history of oppression. He was a brilliant thinker. In 1978 I bought this book in London by him – it’s called Magic, Science and Civilisation. Isn’t that incredible, just the title! You just have to buy it. He says, “I am unashamedly an intellectual, I know no better way to be a human being.” Isn’t that marvellous?

I often pick up Markings by Dag Hammarskjöld, which I bought in 1966. I open it on any page and find something inspiring. He reflected on all different aspects of death, of life, of beauty.

I also read Churchill and recommend his four volumes The History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He was [allegedly] dyslexic, had trouble learning to read and was a slow learner, yet his writings and command of the English language are a revelation.

What did you learn about leadership from reading Churchill?

He knew in his heart he had to show uncompromising leadership. He could never reveal a doubt that they might not win [the war].

Leadership is about having a vision, making sure it’s true and correct and never compromising on it. If you’re doing something new you will, by definition, have people question it. You should always listen to them but take them on a path with you and don’t let them detract from your vision. People love success and will get on the train once the engine is running and you’ve left the station.

What’s the best advice you give students?

One of Faull's favourite authors: Jacob Bronowski. Photo/Getty Images

The more controversy there is, the more difference you’re making. If a student comes to me and says they have a problem, I say, “No you don’t, you have a challenge.” I tell them that every discovery we’ve made in our brain research has come from a different direction from where we started.

I recently went to a Buddhist retreat and participated in a public lecture with a learned monk from Tibet to discuss whether the brain is the mind. They have their philosophy developed over two and a half thousand years and I have my science. It amazed me that Eastern and Western philosophy have strong commonalities. I was impressed by the humanity, the value of the individual as being special and there being common human values that you don’t need $100,000 for. It brought [home to me] that everyone is an individual with a contribution to make. One of the most important things in life is to learn to know yourself. Work out where you can make a contribution and do it.

How well do you know yourself?

Some people with autism have brilliant minds and are on the edge of what’s called normal and abnormal. I’m on the edge because normality has a dullness about it. It’s too predictable.

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