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Rebecca Priestley: Michael Corballis wins our top science award

Michael Corballis: at 80, he keeps his brain in shape with crosswords and sudoku and looks forward to the mathematical elegance of his age next birthday. Photo/David White

Human beings are a “dominant, manipulative, dangerous species”, wrote cognitive neuroscientist Michael Corballis in his 2011 book Pieces of Mind. But the welcome coda to that statement – one that might offer a bit of solace in these crazy times – is that we’re also a species “capable of acts of altruism and goodwill that may save us from self-immolation”. Here’s hoping.

Corballis, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, has spent his career doing “foundational research on the nature and evolution of the human mind, including cerebral asymmetries, handedness, mental imagery, language and mental time travel”. His “exceptional” work has been rewarded with the Rutherford Medal, our top science honour, which he received at a Royal Society event in Christchurch on November 23.

Mental time travel? This human ability to travel – mentally – through time and space and into other people’s minds is crucial to language development, says Corballis. Noam Chomsky, the world’s leading scholar of language and cognitive science, thinks that language arose from a recent genetic mutation that enabled humans to develop the capacity to think in symbols. Corballis has spent much of his career challenging Chomsky’s ideas, instead postulating that the human mind, along with the ability to do mental time travel, evolved gradually and that verbal language emerged from gestural communication among early hominins.

Language, he reckons, developed to allow people to “communicate about what’s on their mind, about things that are not present”. His ideas have stood up to scientific scrutiny, and the nomination for the Ruther­ford Medal cites his ability to look at scientific problems “from a novel perspective and then work tirelessly to bring others over to his arguments”.

Corballis’ work feeds into one of science’s biggest mysteries: consciousness. Like any major scientific challenge – and understanding the human brain is up there with the search for the Higgs boson and decoding the human genome – it’s a collaborative, multi­disciplinary venture. Corballis’ field, cognitive neuroscience, “is a top-down psychological avenue” into the brain, in which researchers try to understand its functions such as memory, language, perception and attention, “and then try to find the brain areas responsible”.

Another avenue is through neurophysiology, a bottom-up approach that starts at the molecular level, “figuring out the genetics, how neurons work, how the neurons connect”. The hope, says Corballis, is that at some point the bottom-up and top-down processes will meet and we’ll have a comprehensive understanding of the human brain.

Off the couch

Although his field is psychology, his work does not involve people lying on couches or rats running through mazes. Rather, Corballis uses imaging techniques – such as EEG and MRI – to investigate the workings of the human brain. In a recent MRI study, Corballis and his colleagues “looked at which bits of the brain light up when people watch gestures, including meaningless gestures, and which bits light up when they do language tasks, such as generating words or making decisions about word meaning”.

Corballis is officially retired, but he is at the University of Auckland most days. There are ideas to develop and papers to write, “mostly to do with language and language evolution”. He’s increasingly interested in writing for a general audience, the sort of book “a person in a bookshop could pick up and buy and read”. His first popular science book was the 2011 Pieces of Mind: 21 Short Walks Around the Human Brain, followed in 2014 by The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking, which was shortlisted for the Royal Society’s 2013 science book prize.

Another book, The Truth About Language: What It Is and Where It Came From, will be published next year. Understanding language, he says, is key to understanding consciousness. “Nobody has ever really understood how language works. Descartes thought that language was the key to consciousness because language is so open ended – there’s no limit to what you can say or understand, and that’s how the mind seems to work as well. If you go to a library, for example, and open books at random, there are billions and billions of sentences that are all different and there’s no limit to the number we can understand.”

Accidental psychologist

Many past Rutherford Medal winners talk about a childhood passion for their scientific discipline. But Corballis claims he got into his field by accident. “I started out in engineering,” he says. “And then I pretty soon got bored with that, so I did mathematics.” He wound up with a master’s degree in maths. After getting even more bored working in an insurance company, Corballis took night classes in philosophy and psych­ology to complete a BA and “got hooked from there”. After 50 years of studying the ways humans see, understand and talk about the world, he seems to have made a good choice.

Away from work, Corballis, who is the husband of Barbara and father to fellow University of Auckland cognitive neuro­scientist Paul and novelist Tim, keeps his brain in good shape by doing crossword puzzles and suduko and lifting weights. He recently had a milestone birthday – 80 years – but is rather looking forward to the next one, “because 81 is a perfect square of a perfect square”. As Corballis wrote in one of his books, “it’s enough to make the mind boggle”.

After recent events in the US and closer to home, what the future holds will depend to a large degree on how citizens react and respond. What does Corballis think lies ahead? “It’s always dangerous to make predictions – whether of seismic events or the outcomes of elections. We can only trust that the conflicting aspects of human nature will balance out.”

For a full list of medals awarded at the Royal Society’s annual research honours dinner, see www.royalsociety.org.nz

This article was first published in the December 3, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.