Michael Corballis interview

by Diana Wichtel / 19 November, 2011
In his new book, the Auckland psychologist is whimsically subversive about advertising, homeopathy, some orthodox medicine, and universities as money-generators.

We meet at Michael Corballis’s office in the University of Auckland’s Human Sciences Building. It’s small, spartan and has a fluorescent tube that flickers fitfully. The Prof doesn’t seem to notice, but it makes me feel like a poorly trained lab rat in some sort of behavioural experiment.

It turns out we may have a rat in common. When, in the late 60s, I was making a poor fist of Psychology 1 (I’d imagined a cross between an encounter group and a Woody Allen movie, not graphs and rodents), Corballis was in the university’s Psychology Department, before leaving for McGill University in Canada. He may have been the tutor who, on our first day, sighed before saying, “Don’t be silly. Pick up your rat. It won’t bite.” Even as the tutor spoke, a classmate marched from the back of the lab holding triumphantly aloft a streaming finger. The tutor was, I recall, unsympathetic.

“It could have been me,” says Corballis. There were other rat-related fiascos. “I remember we had to put on a brave front, picking up a rat by the tail. And the end of the tail came off. That was one of my worst,” he recalls fondly. “That was the tail end of behaviourism.” He’s fond of a pun. Though he notes there’s still a pigeon lab in the Psychology Department.

Ah, yes. In his new book, Pieces of Mind: 21 Short Walks Around the Human Brain, he writes, of lab pigeons, “… some do remain in some departments of psychology with an attachment to the past”. In person, Corballis is donnish, terrific company, slightly retiring. On paper, he can have the bite of a Psych 1 lab rat.

Pieces of Mind has chapters on everything from small talk to swearing; memory to music. It’s also a salvo in an ongoing war on nonsense. “Many popular ideas, such as homeopathy, Brain Gym, telepathy, much of alternative medicine and perhaps even a fair chunk of orthodox medicine,” writes Corballis blithely, “are largely bullshit.”

Bullshit – along with its more anti­social cousin, lying – is among the things that make us the problematic species we are. “There are some exceptions, such as birds that mimic other birds, but human language is more or less unique in that it enables us to weave tangled webs of deceit.” The book reflects on our tolerance for bullshit, “to the point that entrepreneurship and promotional exercises are generally admired”. Corballis was tempted, he jokes, to add the word “entrepreneur” to the obscenities listed in his chapter on swearing.

In other words, the book is whimsically subversive. “Oh dear. It probably is. I’ll get fired now.” They must be used to it by now. Along with cognitive neuroscience, cerebral asymmetry of function and the evolution of language, bullshit is a favourite topic.

In October, Corballis published a piece – “The money or the truth?” – in the NZ Herald: “… commercial imperatives are also infiltrating our universities”, he warned. “I still think the main function of a university is to try to find and preserve the truth, as distinct from making a profit,” he says, when we meet. He raises the spectre of PBRFs – Performance Based Research Funding. “The administration is constantly telling us to sell ourselves, so there are all sorts of announcements of discoveries at the university, or a new drug. Most of it’s bullshit.” Academics are urged to present themselves in the best possible light. “In other words, the more bullshit the better, really.”

In a piece for Loving All of It, a collection in which eminent persons write about ageing, Corballis also unleashed his inner curmudgeon: “All advertising is propaganda, reducing our capacity to distinguish the truth from lies.” And: “I am waiting for the appointment of a Professor of Lying – maybe there’s an ex-politician out there somewhere who might apply.” Yet here he is, promoting his new book. “It’s a bit of a worry, isn’t it? I might have to remove that final chapter.” Psychologist, heal thyself? “Yeah. It is a conflict, isn’t it?” Not really. Corballis is entitled to some self-promotion.

Pieces of Mind is lovely – an attractively designed collection of bite-sized meditations, many of which began life as a column in New Zealand Geographic. Here you’ll learn enough to make you want to find out more about why Italians gesticulate, how we are the only species brainy enough to care about our brain size, and the theoretical minefield that is the evolution of language.

Corballis is a master of the oddball example. On such tonal languages as Mandarin: “The sentence ‘Mama ma ma de ma ma?’, given the right intonation, can be taken to mean ‘Is mother scolding the horse’s hemp?’ Not an everyday utterance, to be sure, but it makes the point.” Here’s a chance to discover that lab rats laugh. And to be reminded how badly our allegedly superior species treats animals and each other. It’s a book about what makes us distinctly, if not always admirably, human.

There’s also some myth-busting. Those of us who like to think we are right-brain creatives as opposed to analytical left-brain types will be disappointed to read that this is … bullshit. Or, at least, “a gross exaggeration of the neurological facts”. “It’s got into the dictionary,” Corballis notes wearily. “Look up right brain and it will tell you it’s a way of thinking. Left brain is another way of thinking – the dichotomising of everything.”

Beware, he writes, of techniques that promise to unleash your right-brain creativity, “in art, education, therapy, business and even literature, despite the left brain being responsible for language”. Corballis feels like a bit of a spoilsport, raining his rationality on the right-brain parade. “People love semi-paradoxical myths. The left-brain, right-brain thing is partly driven by the fact that the two sides of the brain look almost exactly the same. So to say they do completely different things is almost to invoke something non-material, almost like a god or something.”

Another lucrative myth: we use only 10% of our brain. If we only knew how, we could cash in on the other 90% like some sort of cognitive Powerball jackpot. Sadly, no. “Modern brain-imaging techniques have allowed us to observe which parts of the brain are active when people are asked to perform mental tasks, from simple word naming to making aesthetic judgments,” writes Corballis. “This work has failed to reveal any part of the brain that is conspicuously silent, as though waiting to be put to use.”

In fact, some people function with hardly any brain. Corballis has worked with people who have had half their brains removed because of severe epilepsy. “Two had their left side and two their right removed. I mean, they’re all manifestly not 100%, as you’d expect, but they can have a good conversation … And, of course, they actually get better quality of life.” Still myths persist. Perhaps we’re wired to crave mystery about our make-up; a desire to be greater than the sum of our increasingly scientifically dissected parts. “Anything that goes against the idea of the brain as a mechanism,” says Corballis, “makes a good myth.”

For one who has spent a lot of time messing about with brains, Corballis is surprising incurious about his own inner workings. “Ugh” is his short answer when asked if he has had his genome sequenced, now that we can discover what diseases lurk in our genetic inheritance. “I don’t even relish the thought of having a brain scan, particularly. We’ve been doing stuff up at the medical school and I could easily have said, ‘I’ll be the subject for this one. Stick me in there.’” He doesn’t. You never know what you might find.

“When they put the MRI machine up at the hospital for the first time and they were just trying out the machine, there was a new faculty member in the medical school. They put him in and discovered a tumour. He’d just arrived in the country and had no medical insurance. All hell broke loose. They had to devise procedures for what they call ‘incidental findings’.” Corballis does not want to be anybody’s incidental finding, not even his own. “A bit wimpy, isn’t it?”

Actually, it’s a relief to find the distinguished psychologist is prey to the same mortal fears and neuroses as the rest of us. If he could be persuaded to stick his head in a scanner, the bits of the brain relating to superstition might light up like a Christmas tree. He admits to a few. “Funny, isn’t it?” he says. “Completely stupid rituals like turning the teapot around three times. I know they are utterly irrational,” he says, adding, rationally, that we are obviously built to have some sort of ritualistic, superstitious bent. “And that, itself, is a huge evolution. People are now beginning to look at art and religion, too, in evolutionary terms.”

As for the origins of language, the subject was so controversial, Corballis has noted, that in 1866 the Linguistics Society of Paris banned discussion of it. The London Philological Society soon followed suit. There are still wildly differing views. “One is that humans are completely different, and that comes from the Bible. And Chomsky,” says Corballis, a little mischievously. “The other view comes from Darwin and the body of evidence really has to be with Darwin. I think otherwise you’re talking miracles.”

Corballis and influential linguist, cognitive scientist and political activist Noam Chomsky are poles apart. “Chomsky partly destroyed our thinking about this because he and quite a lot of anthropologists think there was a sort of big leap forward very recently with the emergence of our species – 100,000 years ago, which is nothing,” says Corballis. “The idea that there was something – he says it could have been a mutation – and boom! You have language and symbolic reasoning and humans. Just like that.”

Corballis’s view: “I argue that you can make a much more continuous transition from ape to human through six million years, not 100,000. I think language probably started as pantomime, done with the hands gesticulating things. I think more and more people are coming to believe that. The problem is it goes against almost a century of tradition of believing that speech is what language is all about.”

The freeing of the hands was, he says, the first example of miniaturisation. Gestures went, as the title of his 2002 book has it, from hand to mouth. “This may account,” he writes in Pieces, “for the extraordinary explosion of technology (including weapons), art, bodily decoration and sheer cultural diversity that characterise our species.”

The argument has an appealing circularity. In 2010, speaking at the Royal Society Science Lecture Series on Brain and Behaviour, Corballis noted the re-emergence of gesture: “I watch a new generation poking away at small hand-held devices, pointing remote control devices at screens, hunched over laptop computers. Twitter and Facebook are the new modes of conversation and gossip.” On balance, he sees the computer revolution as positive. “I think it’s liberating. And the first example of that was speech. It liberated the body.”

The book touches on such fascinating complexities as recursion, the human ability to, among other wonders, think about thinking. And to torment our fellow creatures with sentences such as: “The malt that the rat that the cat killed ate lay in the house that Jack built.” He’s written a book about it – The Recursive Mind, published by Princeton University Press. So when Corballis mentions that his son, neuroscientist Paul Corballis, is now in an office along the corridor, and says “I think he thinks he’s a sociologist”, he is speaking recursively.

The book’s chapter on our awareness of what others might be thinking – it’s known as “theory of mind” – is useful when considering Corballis’s disinclination to blow his own trumpet. When I think that he thinks that I may think that he’s up himself (I don’t), that’s an example of theory of mind. I think.

He is, you realise after an hour with him, a born teacher. Celebrity psychologist Steven Pinker learnt at least some of what he knows from Corballis, although his teacher wasn’t aware of him at the time. He’s also a bit of a star, in a Kiwi way. Corballis is the go-to guy when journalists get landed with articles about left-handedness (he’s a world expert on laterality) or whether Google is making us dumb. Yet he tells of the time a colleague from the maths department wanted to read one of his books. “We decided we’d go to the university book store to buy a copy. They’d never heard of it. So I said, ‘Actually, I wrote it.’” They found copies in Australia. “But I couldn’t buy it at my own university,” he muses, without rancour, “or in New Zealand.”

"No problem. I’m a retired gentleman,” he says, when I worry about taking too much of his time. He is a professor emeritus, but he’s hardly retired. “I’m worth 30% and that’s partly because I still have some research students. So I am supposed to have lost 70% of my marbles.” Well, he had such a surfeit of marbles to begin with he can afford to lose a few. He started out as an engineer but, tiring of pre-stressed concrete, studied mathematics and did a BA before settling on psychology. He did five degrees in all. Was he mad? “I was always a bit of a dilettante.” He was good at science, mathematics, English, French … The curse of the all-rounder? “Exactly. So psychology was perfect because you’re caught between the humanities and the sciences. There is the opportunity to think more broadly. I think my curious education reflects that. I could never have been a bench chemist.”

No wonder he’s such a good populariser, a useful talent these days when there’s a notion abroad – you see it with creationists and climate-change deniers – that science is just another belief system. “Yeah, there’s a big anti-science thing out there, isn’t there? The good thing about science is that it changes in the light of the facts, whereas most other doctrines don’t. Maybe that’s the definition of science, really.” Of course, deniers can then claim the science isn’t settled. “As if being settled is what matters. Religions are pretty settled, aren’t they? But does that make them more amenable to the truth? I don’t think so.”

Corballis is not religious. “I was sent to Anglican schools, but I can’t remember actually believing the stuff.” An aversion to dogma has sometimes led to professional tensions. “I’ve fallen out a bit with the therapists. I got offside with the clinical side of the department here over repressed memories and the effects of sexual abuse.” That was during the Christchurch Civic Creche debacle. “I got in trouble with the clinical people for defending Peter Ellis, things like that.” Time has placed him on the right side of that one.

But Corballis is not one to make great claims for being right. As he maintains, you have to be flexible; prepared to change the complex, endlessly creative, mysteriously wired mechanism that is your mind. Except, perhaps, about right-brain myths, entrepreneurs and other bullshit. “Scientists are sort of groping towards the truth,” he says. “What else can you do?”


THE ANCESTORS: “Neanderthals had brains at least as large as our own, but died out some 30,000 years ago. We voluble humans may have somehow talked them out of existence.”
LATERALITY: “Those without consistent handedness appear to be slightly more at risk for disorders such as stuttering or reading disability. A large-scale study of 11-year-olds in the UK showed that mixed-handers scored slightly worse than either lefties or righties on various tests of academic achievement, and our own analyses of data drawn from the television programme Test the Nation: The New Zealand IQ Test, aired in 2003, showed the same trend.”
STILL A JUNGLE OUT THERE: “The dangerous animals we must now deal with are not so much snakes as sellers of snake oil. And they are everywhere – in commerce, politics, religion and even, dare I say, the university.”


Michael Corballis's interview on RNZ National's Saturday Morning with Kim Hill:


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