What’s squeezed into the skull, Rebecca Priestley

Pieces of Mind: 21 Short Walks around the Human Brain
Michael C Corballis
Auckland University Press. $30.00,
ISBN 9781869404925


Last year, my sister Rachel returned from 10 years in Italy, laden with fine Tuscan wines – a light bubbly prosecco made by a Venetian count is my favourite – wonderful recipes with ingredients like zucchini flowers and artichoke hearts, and fluent Italian. One of the most impressive things about her Italian is the remarkable array of expletives she learned on her travels. Each curse, though, is more than a word or phrase – it comes with accompanying gestures that, she insists, are an essential part of the curse.

When she says non mi friga niente, for example, she tips her head back and gives a dismissive swipe of the back of her fingertips outwards from beneath her chin. To say que palle takes both hands. With fingers gently cupped and thumbs up, her hands swing subtly up and down at hip level, with the distance between her hands – and the expression on her face – indicating just how much she means it. Vaffanculo, one of the strongest curses, takes the whole body. With bent knees and arms hanging low, she swings her arms up to face level, “with hands like they are cupping explosives”, she explains. As she stands to full height, the next step is to “release the whole lot at the person in front of you, with great force, flicking with your fingers every last drop of passion out to them”.

There are more. So many, that in my fumbling attempts at Italian cursing, I usually match the wrong gestures to each curse and completely destroy any attempt at communicating.

Perhaps my ancient ancestors were better at gesticulating. In his essay “Why Italians Gesticulate”, Michael Corballis says we all used to use our hands to communicate. He believes humans had gestural language long before they developed speech. Homo sapiens’s switch from gestural language to speech, says Corballis, may have given them a practical advantage. Speech allowed people to communicate in the dark, and to convey information to people outside of their line of sight, and it used a lot less energy than gesturing.

Most importantly, though, speech allowed the hands to be freed up for other activities such as making and using tools, and carrying possessions from one place to another, giving us a significant evolutionary advantage. “It also allowed our talking forbears to explain manual skills at the same time as demonstrating them, as in modern cooking shows on television.” As for the Neanderthals, who for a time were the dominant hominid species on the European continent, “we voluble humans may have somehow talked them out of existence”.

Michael Corballis is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Auckland. His essay on gestural language is one of 21 in Pieces of Mind, a collection of short essays most of which are adapted from his New Zealand Geographic column. He’s had a long and distinguished career as an academic and experimental psychologist, with many publications, but this is his first book written for a general audience. The essays all deal with the minds of human beings, whom he describes as a “dominant, manipulative, dangerous species, albeit one capable of acts of altruism and goodwill that may save us from self-immolation”.

Psychology has not always been so enamoured with the brain, which he describes as “that large wrinkled organ squeezed into our skulls”, but modern scientific techniques like brain imaging have allowed the correlation of human behaviour and brain structure. The hippocampus, for example, is now known to be responsible for memory, the amygdala for emotion. The study of mind now draws on brain sciences as well as behaviourism, and disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, biology, genetics, linguistics, neuroscience and philosophy. As Corballis says, “[I]t’s enough to make the mind boggle.”

Other essays cover topics such as brain asymmetry, left-handedness, visual recognition, memory, synaesthesia and laughter. Reflecting one of Corballis’s own long-term research interests, several of the essays are about language and communication, whether swearing, gesticulation or music.

Corballis clearly likes language. In one essay he tries to explain the distinction between lies and bullshit. “Many popular ideas, such as homeopathy, Brain Gym, telepathy, much of alternative medicine and perhaps even a fair chunk of orthodox medicine,” he explains, “are largely bullshit.” Statements made without regard to the facts, stuff that people make up, is all bullshit, something of which we humans are “extraordinarily tolerant”. We’re also extremely well equipped to tell lies, he says – when we intentionally state something we know is not true.

While I’m not suggesting that he’s a liar, Corballis refreshingly does not have the authoritative tone of some scientists who interpret their science for a wide audience, and like to give the impression that they are telling you The Truth. Rather, there’s a real sense of curiosity that comes through in his writing – he’s as curious, and often as bemused, about the subject as his readers. He writes with flair and an easy style, with frequent humour and occasional gravitas. As well as telling us about the work of some of the world’s top neuroscientists and psychologists he references pop culture and a range of scientists and philosophers, from Jean M Auel to Vladimir Nabokov, Monica Lewinsky to Richard Feynman.

He gives a really interesting interpretation of left-handedness, which, as a southpaw, I’ve always found curious. Left-handedness runs in families (both my grandfathers were left-handed) but it’s only weakly inherited, he explains: having one left-handed parent raises your chances of being left-handed from 10 to 20 per cent, but having two left-handed parents raises the odds to only 26 per cent. The best guess, says Corballis, is that genetic influence does not determine left- or right-handedness, but rather whether or not you are right-handed. “Left-handers, then, are not so much left-handed as lacking any genetic disposition towards right-handedness.” Without a tendency to be right-handed, an individual can turn out to be left-handed, right-handed or even ambidextrous.

“We humans may not have the largest brain in the animal kingdom, but we have proved to be the only animals capable of looking inside,” says Corballis. We’re probably also the only species that finds itself so endlessly fascinating. Though, when Corballis joined Kim Hill in a conversation about the human brain at Writers and Readers Week at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington earlier this year, and Hill asked Corballis if he’d ever had a brain scan or ever would, “No!” was his reply. “I don’t want to know what’s in there.”

Corballis might not want to know what’s in his own brain, but he does a great job in this book of telling us what he knows about the human brain.

These essays are very much short walks; this review is longer than any of the essays in the book. Corballis is a great writer, and has very ably made the transition from academic to popular writing. His other books – including The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought and Civilisation (2011) and From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Language (2003) – are accessible but focused on specific areas of his own research. Next time, I’d like to see what he’d come up with if he took us on a long stroll – a full-length, wide-ranging book written for a mainstream audience. I guess I’ll have to wait. Porca miseria. (I’m pretty sure it’s a shrug and a frown that goes with that one.)


Rebecca Priestley is a Wellington science writer. 


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