Michael Corballis

Michael Corballis was born and educated in New Zealand before completing his PhD in psychology at McGill University, Montreal in 1965. He joined the Psychology Department there in 1968, before being appointed Professor of Psychology at the University of Auckland in 1978, where he is now Emeritus Professor. He has published 11 books and over 400 articles and book chapters on such topics as cognition, memory, language, brain asymmetry, and human evolution. His most recent books are The Recursive Mind (2011), Pieces of Mind (2012), and The Wandering Mind (2013).

Messing with the Unconscious - Mind Matters

Nov 15, 2018

It appears that there is something of a panic, especially in our universities, over the possibility of unconscious biases, especially against minority groups. This has led to workshops and publicity material designed help us recognise our biases and correct them. Much of the impetus for this has been driven by a psychological test known as the implicit association test (IAT). When applied to racial bias, it works like this: People are shown combined pictures and words, and asked to respond quickly whether the word is “good” (such as happy) or “bad” (such as murder), and then asked to respond “white” or “black” depending on whether they see a white or a black face. If they respond more quickly to “good/white” and “bad/black” combinations than to “good/black” and “bad/white” they are deemed to be biased against black people. Responses are entered … Read More

Pinker and Pinker - Mind Matters

Oct 16, 2018

Steven Pinker is an optimist. In his two recent books, he paints an increasingly rosy picture of human civilization. In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), he shows how human violence has declined over the centuries. In Enlightenment Now (2018), he tells us that, besides becoming less violent, we live longer, and are wealthier, heathier, happier, safer, and more knowledgeable. Lest you think he is merely describing the privileged life of a Harvard academic, he shows that these trends are worldwide. The book is awash with graphs pointing relentlessly upward for the good things of life, and downward for the bad. His only major concern, it seems, is climate change, but he does seem to give the sense—or at least the hope—that science will eventually solve that. The argument is monumentally convincing, but as far as I can tell … Read More

Rape: Through a glass darkly - Mind Matters

May 11, 2018

The following is a summary notice of a talk to be given to an academic audience (the author and location shall be nameless): "In this paper I seek to uncover law’s ontological force as it reveals itself in the rape trial. It is common for survivors of sexual violence to refer to their interaction with the criminal justice system as a second rape’. Returning to Heidegger’s contention that the ontology of modernity is characterised by a planetary technicity leading inexorably to a global death project, I argue that to understand the legal process as a ‘second rape’ we must return to the question of Being. Situating legal discourse within the realm of tools marshalled in the service of what Irigaray would call ‘technophallogocentrism’, and through a critical reading of a rape trial transcript, I attempt to listen to the force … Read More

Who’s afraid of Noam Chomsky? - Mind Matters

Feb 26, 2018

Me. But let’s press on regardless. Noam Chomsky is a polarising figure in modern intellectual life. Best known in popular discourse for his radical criticism of US foreign policy, he has written countless best-selling book on this and related political topics. It is as a philosopher and linguist, though, that he is likely to be best remembered intellectually, leading some to claim him as the foremost intellectual of our time—on a par with, say, Aristotle or Descartes. He had a major influence on psychology. For over half of the 20th century, psychology was dominated by behaviourism, the view that psychology was about what people actually do, rather than what is going on in their minds. In 1957 the behaviourist B.F. Skinner published his monumental book Verbal Behavior, a behavioural attempt to reach a psychological summit—the explanation … Read More

Science woes - Mind Matters

Dec 18, 2017

The following is a slightly amended extract from an address I gave to the Science Graduation ceremony at the University of Otago, on 16 December, 2017: I think science is in some trouble these days. Many still see it as inaccessible and remote, and at the same time immoral and dangerous. Even our own Ernest Rutherford is wrongly blamed for nuclear war, as is Darwin for the rise of fascism in Europe, and Einstein for being incomprehensible and for the inability of men to look after their hair. To be sure, there have been strenuous and sometimes admirable attempts to present the human face of science, and Einstein’s hair can even help in this regard, but the attempt to popularise science is often accompanied by excessive hype and false promise. A claimed breakthrough on mice never quite seems to provide … Read More

How to score in academia - Mind Matters

Aug 18, 2017

The way you score in academia seems to have changed down the years. Once, I remember, it was the number of articles you managed to publish that mattered. A couple per year got you through the ranks, and a book might nudge you through to a professorship, even if no one actually read it. Nobody cared too much where these things were published, so long as they added bulk to your CV. It then dawned on promotions committees and the like that articles also didn’t mean too much if no one cited them. So it was not so much the number of articles that mattered, but rather how many times they got cited. In 1964, the Science Citation Index, later called Web of Knowledge, was established, so you could quickly find out how many times your work had been cited … Read More

Stuck in Traffic - Mind Matters

Jul 25, 2017

I am stuck in traffic somewhere in the grey western suburbs of Auckland, listening on radio to a discussion of being stuck in traffic in Auckland. It’s much better in Dunedin, they say. There you can get to any destination within minutes. The radio chatters on. I learn a bit about disposable shopping bags, and the problem of knowing what to wear if you are a transgender person. A discussion of unconscious bias troubles me slightly. It seems that some people can be conscious of biases that are unconscious in others, but can we be sure that the detectors of unconscious bias are not themselves biased? Perhaps unconsciously? Could there be an element of mind control there? The unconscious is dangerous territory, I feel. Best not go there, especially if stuck in traffic. You need all … Read More

Pennies from heaven – music and memory - Mind Matters

Mar 14, 2017

I recently read a letter from a 92-year-old American who was surprised to discover he knew 203 pop songs in detail, and partially knew another 58. He said he had a poor academic record and in other respects his memory was not exceptional. He was not a singer, but had done some acting. He had also published a book of poems, many of which he could no longer remember! I discovered to my surprise that I also recognized many of the songs he listed, and could even remember most of the words. Recognition is easy, though. If asked to simply list all of the song I know, I could probably manage only about 20. Even so they lurk in the mind, even though they are of no use any more. To give you the flavour, here is a list of … Read More

Me first - Mind Matters

Jan 09, 2017

“Me and my husband,” began the Queen in her Christmas message. Well of course she didn’t. For a start, she always modestly places herself second: “My husband and I …” But had she relegated Philip to his proper station, she would surely have said “I and my husband …” Or if she had insisted on the royal “we,” it would have been “We and my husband,” and not “Us and my husband.” (Actually, Philip seems to have dropped out of the Christmas message in recent years). The construction “me and X” as the subject of a sentence seems universal, as in “Me and Fred went to the movies,” “Me and Jane strangled the cat.” Yet dictionaries insist that “me” is the accusative case—the object not the subject of a sentence. Somehow, the rule is lost when we place ourselves first. Read More

There are several myths about twins, but mostly they’re just like the rest of us - Mind Matters

Aug 18, 2016

What’s special about twins? I was recently asked to comment on a video clip of identical twin girls, who seemed to be thinking in parallel. They finished each other’s sentence, and sometimes seemed to gives the same simultaneous answers to questions, as though they communicated through telepathy. The clip was widely shown on television. Actually, it is not so unusual; if you Google “twins communicating telepathically” you can find lots of examples, with claims of psychic powers somehow special to twins. I’m afraid I was not impressed. We humans in general seem adept at what is called theory of mind, knowing what others are thinking or feeling. This is what underlies empathy, social understanding, and even language itself. It is not uncommon for close pairs—husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, midfield rugby players—to know what’s in the other’s mind. They … Read More