By Michael Corballis 19/10/2015


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 erred on several occasions in the past was somehow therapeutic, helping others overcome the fear of publishing and being damned. Or perhaps there has simply been a delay between sticking my neck out and the fall of the guillotine.

I like to tell my students that it is important to be wrong. In fact, I say that if you’re going to be wrong it is a good idea to be spectacularly wrong, because this leaves the truth less space in which to hide. Although this perhaps smacks of a scorched-earth policy, it does suggest that we might one day find the truth, cowering in some corner of a burned-out field.

For what it’s worth, some of my wrongful claims have had to do with the vexed question of human uniqueness. What is that makes humans somehow special, and closer to angels than to apes? Some years ago I wrote a book called The Lopsided Ape, arguing that the secret lay in brain asymmetry. Only humans, I suggested, are predominantly right-handed, and house language, itself a uniquely human trait, in the left side of the brain. And it’s the left brain that controls the right hand.

We now know that brain asymmetry is more the rule than the exception, and even mice seem to squeak from the left brain. Even kangaroos seem to show a consistent handedness, although it is the left hand, not the right, that seems to rule. And of course my thesis was a bit unfair to left-handers, some of whom house language in the right brain, and some rather sensibly have language represented on both sides. And in any event there is only a weak correlation between handedness and brain asymmetry for language.

A more recent error was my claim that only humans can travel mentally in time, reliving past events or imagining future ones. This has been a surprisingly common theme. Robert Browning’s poem A Grammarian’s Funeral, published in 1855, includes the following lines:  “He said, ‘What’s time? Leave Now for dogs and apes!/Man has Forever!’” W.H. Auden expresses the same idea in his 1972, poem ironically titled Progress?:

 

Sessile, unseeing,

the Plant is wholly content

with the Adjacent.

 

Mobilized, sighted,

the Beast can tell Here from There

and Now from Not-Yet.

 

Talkative, anxious,

Man can picture the Absent

and Non-Existent.

 

Besides myself, a number of scientists have joined the chorus. They include Jane Goodall, who studied the chimpanzees at Gombe National Park in Tanzania and was recorded as saying that chimps can’t communicate about things that aren’t present, and the German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler, famous for his studies on insight in chimpanzees, also wrote that “The time in which chimpanzees live is limited in past and future.”

Such claims have provoked many to provide counterexamples. Experiments on the prodigious ability of some birds to cache and later recover items of food has suggested that they know not only where the food has been hidden, but also remember the act of caching it. Santino is a chimpanzee in a Swedish Zoo who carefully collects and hides rocks, which he later throws at people who come into the zoo. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he has in mind the future occasion when he gleefully unleashes his arsenal.

But the critical information comes from a seahorse-shape structure in the brain called the hippocampus, which orchestrates the recovery of past memories and the imagining of future events. This structure goes far back in evolution, and hippocampal recording even in the rat indicate that it replays past excursions in a maze, and even pre-plays possible future ones.

Well, I’m now convinced that animals and birds do travel mentally in time and space, and that this was an adaptation critical to the survival of creatures that move about. Perhaps we should stop our desperate, guilty search for proof that we humans are somehow different and superior.

But then I could be wrong again.