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).

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

Do we use only 10 percent of our brain? - Mind Matters

May 05, 2016

Do we use only 10 percent of our brain? That idea has been around for a long time, but we now know it’s not true. Brain imaging fails to show large regions of quiescence, as expected if we only used a small fraction of the stuff that occupies the skull. Even when we’re at rest a widespread “default” network remains active, accommodating the idle thoughts that flit into the mind, and may even provide illumination or creative ideas. At night, when normal stimulation is cut off and the body is immobile, we dream, filling the mind with often bizarre and sometimes fearful images. Far from idling along on candle power, the brain remains fully active even when we’re not fully aware of it. Sometimes the answer to a difficult crossword clue simply pops up out of the mist of my semiconscious mind, … Read More

Forget mindfulness – let your mind wander instead - Mind Matters

Feb 04, 2016

We seem to be in the grip of something called mindfulness. As I understand it, this is a form of meditation in which you are urged to focus on the present, and on your own body. You might start by focusing on the toes, and move systematically up the body—toes, knees, hips, chest, jaw, tongue, before exiting through the top of the head, or perhaps setting out on the return voyage. I believe it’s best to sit cross-legged on a cushion, and you might then vary the routine by focusing intently on the pressure exerted by the cushion on your behind. Mindfulness, they say, relieves tension and promotes well-being. It is in many respects the opposite of mind wandering, in which we mentally move away from the present, to different places at different times, and even into the minds … Read More

Neurobollocks - Mind Matters

Nov 03, 2015

Neurobollocks may be the new psychobabble The prefix “neuro” refers to the nerves, especially in relation to the most complex bundle of nerves of all—no, not a rugby coach, but the brain. So we have such disciplines as neurology, neurosurgery, neurobiology, neurochemistry, neurophysiology, neurophysics, along with countless specialty terms such as neuroblast, neuroendocrine, neuroglia, neurofibril, neuroma, neuron, neuropeptide … (check any good dictionary) and more recently neuroscience. As scientists began to appreciate the links between brain and mind, we find neuropsychiatry and neuropsychology, and for some psychologists who have perhaps sought to differentiate themselves, cognitive neuroscience. That’s me, I suppose. So far, all is reasonably well contained, although neurophilosophy may strain the little grey cells a bit, boggling the brain. The affixation of “neuro” may seem to lend an air of solidity to areas that may seem insubstantial or ethereal, … Read More

On being wrong - Mind Matters

Oct 19, 2015

A few weeks ago I gave a talk in Rome, as you do. I happened to mention that I had been wrong about a few things. I was surprised to discover that this brought me more compliments than what I was actually trying to say. Most of us in academic life have at some stage lived in fear of being wrong, or of being found out. I don’t mean that academic tend to cheat or fake their data, although that happens too. I mean that we are somehow not up with the play, that we don’t know things that everyone else knows, and that exposing our wrongness can lead not only to ridicule but also to scholarly damnation. This fear can prevent a PhD thesis from being submitted, or a critical article from being published. Perhaps my admission of having … Read More

I am not a psychologist - Mind Matters

Oct 09, 2015

I have taught psychology since 1961, carried out research on it, written about it. I have postgraduate degrees in it. But I am not allowed to call myself a psychologist. The reason is that I am not registered under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance (HPCA) Act 2003, which for psychologists is administered by the New Zealand Psychologists Board. I suppose I might have considered registering if either of those bodies inserted apostrophes appropriately in their titles, but in truth few academic psychologists have seen the need to pay the application fee of $441.50 or the annual fee of $545. What this means is that the term “psychologist” is largely taken to refer to a practitioner—someone trained to diagnose, or give therapy, or otherwise deal with issues of mental health. In some respects I am relieved not to be able to … Read More