By Guest Author 03/09/2015

Guest post by Michael Corballis.

Orakei2In 1963 I enrolled as a PhD student in McGill University’s Department of Psychology in Montreal, Canada.

The first seminar was conducted by Donald Hebb, something of a legendary figure in both psychology and neuroscience, and widely remembered for formulating what has come to be known as Hebb’s rule, still regarded as the fundamental basis of learning and memory: “Neurons that fire together wire together.”

We were twelve new graduate students, as yet strangers to each other. To my surprise Hebb opened the seminar by reading a letter from the University of Otago, where they were trying to recruit new staff. The letter gave fulsome descriptions of life in New Zealand—the mountains, the beaches, the sunshine, the clean air.

After reading the letter Hebb advised us never to take a job on the basis of physical attractions. The important thing was the intellectual climate, not the physical one. And he pointed out that the last person he knew who took a job in New Zealand fell off a mountain and died.

He was referring, I think, to Harry Scott, a New Zealand psychologist and well-known pacifist, who had worked under Hebb before returning to New Zealand as the first Head of Psychology at the University of Auckland. He was killed in a mountaineering accident near the summit of Mount Cook in 1960.

The key to memory

After Hebb had read the letter and delivered his advice, the person sitting next to me turned to me and said, “My God, who’d want to go to New Zealand anyway?” I tried to tell him, sotto voce, that I’d just come from there and it wasn’t really so bad. It turned out that his name was John O’Keefe, and last year he shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with two of his own former students, May-Britt and Edvard Moser. The prize was awarded for their joint work on that important little seahorse embedded in the brain, the hippocampus, the structure that holds the key to, yes, memory.

A couple of years ago I suggested to the Royal Society of New Zealand that John might be invited to New Zealand as a visiting speaker, and perhaps discover that we’re not so bad after all. The suggestion was not pursued, and I suspect the opportunity is now lost. He is no doubt much in demand.

In spite of his rather puritanical advice, Hebb was widely known for his liberal approach to graduate education, encouraging students to pursue their own interests and get quickly into research of their own choosing. He served for a time as Chancellor of the University, and enraged some in the Science Faculty by urging them to close undergraduate laboratories, and have students engage in real research.

We had graduate seminars, and grades were dished out but not taken seriously. Hebb never managed to learn all of the names of the twelve of us in his seminar; there were no exams, but somehow he gave us all marks, ranging from 78 to 83, which I later learned was his customary range.

Poet and painter too

John O’Keefe later told me that he never once attended the graduate statistics course, supposedly compulsory, and then later discovered that he needed to know some stats for his PhD thesis. George Ferguson, a kindly professor who taught the statistics course, was only too happy to give him a crash course in what he needed. In his spare time, Ferguson was a poet and a painter.

I was somehow reminded of those days when I read—or rather skimmed—the most recent issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, dedicated to the future of science in New Zealand. It contains much worthy talk of initiatives, challenges, systems, innovation, excellence—and indeed what one contributor called “future babble,” a term coined by the Canadian journalist Dan Gardner.

Well, times have no doubt changed, and perhaps it is no more than an exercise in nostalgia to look back on a time when science was fun, driven by curiosity rather than by political or economic imperatives.

Michael C. Corballis is a psychologist and author. He is emeritus professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Auckland