A Few Short Stories of Dr. Michael Corballis


Dr. Mike Corballis met me on the tiny island of Waiheke, a short ferry ride from downtown Aukland. He is an Emeritus Professor and Inaugural Creativity Fellow at the University of Aukland in New Zealand where he has served since 1978. His research is far-reaching in scope, his publications are theoretically provocative and speak to the developmental origins of our species and our cognitive abilities, and, one can only applaud the inaugural bestowal of Creativity Fellow to him for this body of work.

Because we were on Waiheke overlooking the gorgeous hillside and coastline, we settled on his porch to chat and to enjoy the beauty of the day. I mention this because, unfortunately, my recorder picked up a fair bit of wind noise. If you can brave that bit of distortion in the audio, it will be worth it — Dr. Corballis shared some fantastic stories and retold them with a quick wit. Because that noise may be too much, I’ll also put a little extra effort into describing the highlights from each excerpt I post in this summary.

With that caveat in mind, Dr. Corballis introduces himself as recorded from his porch on Waiheke island, NZ, on a beautiful (if slightly breezy) summer day in January!

One well known bit of New Zealand trivia is that it has a greater population of sheep than people living on its islands. Slowly that is changing as the wine industry has proved more appealing to modern tastes than mutton, and one can find many new (and pricey) Wynyards springing up across the former sheep grazing lands.  In any case, that history held some appeal for Philip Corballis (Mike’s father) who was lured to New Zealand from the Ireland (by way of Scotland). At that time, the British government offered extremely low-cost assisted immigration, and Philip Corballis also had some solid prospects on where he could get land sheep farming in the early 1930’s. So Philip Corballis made the big move to New Zealand and he started a Sheep farm with his brother. Mike Corballis was born a few years later (1936) in the rural town of Martin, New Zealand where his family had their farm. Young Mike attended multiple boarding schools during his primary education, shifting between those that might have been best suited to the family’s academic needs and those that were able to be accessible to those living in that rural part of New Zealand.

He describes how he moved into the field of Psychology in this next excerpt:

Again, apologies for the wind noise. Let’s recap: young Mike was a very good student with particular strengths in Maths and Physics. He also really enjoyed Latin, but his parents saw more potential for him in the sciences. Dutifully, Mike’s parents introduced him various professionals who might guide him forward into gainful employment and respectability as a young man. From all of that urging, Mike entered the University of Canterbury at Christchurch as an engineering student. U of Canterbury had a very good program and Mike found himself being mentored by a faculty member in that department. As recalled by Dr. Corballis in the excerpt, this mentor invited some of the students round to his place for Sunday dinner and to give the students a sense of their presumptive future. At that dinner the conversation turned towards the expertise of this faculty member: pre-stressed concrete. To Mike the topic of pre-stressed concrete was about as exciting as watching dirt harden. Pre-stressed concrete is an important field, and others would take up the baton and help lead the world forward to new advances in pre-stressed concrete. But not Mike. After a little exposure to pre-stressed concrete he quickly ended his relationship with engineering and he sought out a new major.

By this time, Mike found a day job and was working to support himself as an actuary for an insurance company. He worked during the day and, as it happened, Psychology was conveniently offered at night. So off Mike went in pursuit of this new degree testing the waters of Psychology. Mike completed a Bachelors and Master’s of Science in Math, and a Bachelor’s of Art in Psychology at the University of New Zealand. He went on for a Master’s in Psychology (University of Aukland) and then a PhD in Psychology at McGill University (Montreal, Canada).

So how does one go from University of Aukland in New Zealand almost 9,000 mi/14000 km around the world to McGill University in Montreal, Canada? In this case, it has to do with relationships. In this next excerpt Dr. Corballis recalls a little about his experience earning his master’s in Psychology and working with his mentor, Prof. Barney Sampson (for more on Prof. Sampson and some additional history on the Uni of Aukland Psychology program, here is an excellent essay from Dr. Corballis).

Mike moved out to the University of Aukland to work with Prof. Sampson. Sampson was a recent graduate of McGill U with background/interests in neurology and cognitive processing. He was also a confabulist with a bit too much love of his drinks, and he often liked to meet with his students at the pub. It was a friendly lab to be a part of, albeit rather limited in what it might have been accomplishing. Hence, under the tutelage of Prof. Sampson, Mike envisioned a path in Psychology with the program that had trained his mentor. One also will note the extra bit of ribbing at the end of this excerpt from the cognitive Psychology icon Donald Broadbent re: Sampson. Broadbent’s comment would have come many years after Dr. Corballis had left Sampson’s lab, and he joked to Dr. Corballis that he never understood a thing Sampson had written! Still, Prof. Sampson  had connections to McGill,  and helped launch Dr. Corballis on his career path. One might also note that all of those investigations into experimental cognition seemed to be much more interesting than pre-stressed concrete.

So, Mike traveled to McGill U and worked with Dr. Dalbir Bindra to earn his doctorate in Psychology 1962-1965, followed with one year as a research associate (1965-66). After completing his degree, Dr. Corballis briefly moved back to New Zealand for a lecturer position at the University of Aukland (1966-68). He then successfully applied for a position and returned to McGill as a tenure-track Assistant Professor in 1968 where he remained until 1977: climbing to Associate and then Full Professor in that time. Dr. Corballis was a contributor and colleague at the McGill Psychology department during an amazing period!

These were the days of the esteemed Donald O. Hebb first chairing the Psychology department (starting in 1948) and later becoming Chancellor of McGill (1970-1974). During these years Hebb published some incredibly important work and theorization on the neural circuits of the brain that might support organizational behaviors, thoughts, emotions. This is also the period that recent centenarian Dr. Brenda Milner, a mentee of Dr. Hebb, began her career at McGill with widely read and cited studies on patient HM in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, explicating the critical neural structures for encoding new memories. Another doctoral student and classmate to Dr. Corballis was Dr. John O’Keefe who later won a Nobel Prize in medicine for his incredible contributions to our understanding of the brain. And there was more, lots more! Dr. Corballis helped to contribute to one of the most historically important and intellectually dynamic periods at McGill U!

Here are a few of Dr. Corballis’ recollections of McGill U during the mid-1960’s into the 1970’s, with some thoughts on Drs. Hebb, Bindra, and the onset of his own landmark research on symmetry and lateralization with pigeons.

A bit more clarification about those pigeon studies. Early in his career Drs. Corballis and Beale designed some experiments to look at interhemispheric transfer — or simply put how one side of the brain might communicate with the other side of the brain. To train one side of a pigeon’s brain required them to construct an apparatus that controlled which eye a pigeon would use to view an object. had they been testing people they might simply ask a participant to close one eye, but you can’t do that with pigeons. Rather, with pigeons, they attached a tiny viewing tube to one eye and blocked the other eye. And, since as Dr. Corballis explained, pigeons completely, 100% transfer image processing to the opposite side of the brain (i.e., Pigeon’s right eye stimulates the left side of its brain and vice versa — by comparison humans transfer about 66% of stimulation from each eye to the opposite hemisphere, 33% stays on the same side), then any transfer of ability from what a pigeon learned with its right eye had to come from the left side of the brain interhemispherically to the right side of the brain.

What they found was that training one eye did transfer to other eye but as a mirror image. If a pigeon responded to a line on a bias with the right eye that looked like this: /     then the left eye would respond to this:   \  (the mirror image) and not this /. The pigeon responds  to the mirror image of that line. That is definitely wrong, but indicates how the two sides of its brain were communicating. For a researcher like Dr. Corballis  who eventually published some tremendous and influential works on symmetry, life-right confusion such as the  “Lopsided Ape,”  “The Psychology of Left and Right” and other such titles, this is where it all started. It started with pigeons, viewing tubes, and the processes that allow for transfer between the two sides of the brain.

Over the years Dr. Corballis’ theoretical position has evolved, but the basic idea is an important one. Much of the world is symmetrical and our bodies tend to respond and process things symmetrically. Culturally we impose a lot of asymmetry on ourselves.  We use written languages that only functions in one specific direction and there is a big difference between “2” and “5” and between “d” and “b”; there is also a big difference in which is the correct side of the road on which to drive. Don’t  get me started on how Tahitians wear flowers behind their ears and all the asymmetrical symbolism of that. For bodies and minds adapted to a largely symmetrical world, these asymmetries can create all kinds of confusions.

From here I want to jump forward several years in Dr. Corballis’ life and thought processes. He has been involved in a huge array of ideas and there are many highlights (just browse the titles I provided below!). Dr. Corballis completed some important and influential work with split brain patients with colleagues Dr. Michael Gazzaniga and others.

In this excerpt he discussed some of his experience with the split brain patients (people who have had their corpus callosum severed, disconnecting the two halves of the brain, typically performed to reduce the severity of seizures).

As described in this excerpt, there were some interesting people who became the center of intensive studies because of their split brains. The result of this surgery created an unique opportunity for understanding the brain and its mechanisms. Moreover, over the years, multiple studies were published and the patients featured in them, like LB, would read those articles and what people believed about him. LB seemed to relish in challenging those scientists and some of their hypotheses about his cognitive abilities (as a cosequence he offhandedly would have posed some direct challenges to emerging prominent theories of  how, exactly, the left versus the right side of the brain might function). For example, as recalled in his excerpt, in the early days LB struggled to draw a picture with his right hand (left brain). And what do you know, but LB very pointedly drew a caricature using that hand for Dr. Corballis when asked if he would to draw a simple shape. Ha! He can, too, draw with that hand!

I’ll jump forward again to some of the fantastic articles from Dr. Corballis on the evolution of language. These influential theoretical essays and arguments were the topic of great debate for me and my psycholinguistic students, as Dr. Corballis pit some of his ideas against arguments from Noam Chomsky and others.

He describes a bit of that language argument below:

The first major idea is that language is grounded in gesture. I’ll refer you to Dr. Corballis’ TED talk for much more on this. In any case, the grounding of language in gesture lends itself very well to the incredibly influential findings of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons dominated so much theoretical discussion in Psychology during the 1990’s and 2000’s (although have more recently come under much criticism), and certainly would seem to bear influence on the mechanisms of such an essential behavior such as language. As Dr. Corballis recalls in this excerpt, he and his colleagues found data to suggest some some neural mirroring and activation with manual gestures, speech, and bodily gestures. These various subsystems, and particularly the development of mirroring speech gestures would seem to underlay language abilities in modern day humans. For those fans of linguistics, one will note the origin of language in gesture theory is not consistent with Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device — setting up this debate. A second critical idea is that language was thought to shift over time from simplistic gestures and pictorial representations to increasingly obscure codes and verbal gestures no longer directly traceable to those early pictures.  There is increasing complexity and codification of language that is both obscure in its level of symbolism and incredibly efficient in representing concepts.

As ever, there is much more to tell you about Dr. Corballis and stories from his life. In terms of the history of Psychology and academia, he related one poignant tale not included above — that of Dr. Justine Sergent and her husband from McGill University — which is chronicled extensively in his book “How a Distinguished Scholar Was Driven to Kill Herself: The Dark Side of Science.” Dr. Corballis has influenced Psychology deeply and borne witness to the ever changing field, both the good and the bad. I look forward to sharing much more from Dr. Corballis with you in the book!

Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Corballis:

Corballis, M. C. (1967). Serial order in recognition and recall. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1), 99-105.

Corballis, M. C., & Beale, I. L. (1976). The psychology of left and right. Oxford, England: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Corballis, M. C. (1980). Laterality and mythAmerican Psychologist, 35(3), 284-295.

Corballis, M. C. (1988). Recognition of disoriented shapesPsychological Review95(1), 115-123.

Corballis, M. C. (1992). On the evolution of language and generativityCognition44(3), 197-226.

Corballis, M. C. (1993). The lopsided ape: Evolution of the generative mind. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Corballis, M. C. (1995). Visual integration in the split brainNeuropsychologia33(8), 937-959.

Corballis, M. C. (1997). Mental rotation and the right hemisphereBrain and Language57(1), 100-121.

Corballis, M. C. (1997). The genetics and evolution of handednessPsychological Review, 104(4), 714-727.

Corballis, M. C. (1998). Sperry and the age of Aquarius: Science, values and the split brainNeuropsychologia36(10), 1083-1087.

Corballis, M. C. (1998). Interhemispheric neural summation in the absence of the corpus callosumBrain: A Journal of Neurology121(9), 1795-1807.

Corballis, M. C. (1999). The Gestural Origins of Language: Human language may have evolved from manual gestures, which survive today as a” behavioral fossil” coupled to speechAmerican Scientist87(2), 138-145.

Corballis, M. C. (2002). From hand to mouth: The origins of language. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Corballis, P. M. (2003). Visuospatial processing and the right-hemisphere interpreterBrain and Cognition53(2), 171-176.

Corballis, M. C. (2007). Recursion, language, and starlingsCognitive Science31(4), 697-704.

Corballis, M. C. (2009). The evolution of languageAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences1156(1), 19-43.

Corballis, M. C. (2010). Mirror neurons and the evolution of languageBrain and Language112(1), 25-35.

Corballis, M. C. (2013). Pieces of Mind: 21 short walks around the human brain.  Aukland, NZ: Aukland University Press.

Corballis, M. C. (2013). Mental time travel: a case for evolutionary continuityTrends in Cognitive Sciences17(1), 5-6.

Corballis, M. C., & Beale, I. L. (1970). Bilateral symmetry and behavior. Psychological Review, 77(5), 451-464.

Corballis, P. M., Funnell, M. G., & Gazzaniga, M. S. (2002). Hemispheric asymmetries for simple visual judgments in the split brainNeuropsychologia40(4), 401-410.

Corballis, M. C., & Morgan, M. J. (1978). On the biological basis of human laterality: I. Evidence for a maturational left–right gradientBehavioral and Brain Sciences1(2), 261-269.

Corballis, M. C., & Roldan, C. E. (1975). Detection of symmetry as a function of angular orientationJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 1(3), 221-230.

Corballis, M. C., & Sergent, J. (1989). Hemispheric specialization for mental rotationCortex25(1), 15-25.

Fugelsang, J. A., Roser, M. E., Corballis, P. M., Gazzaniga, M. S., & Dunbar, K. N. (2005). Brain mechanisms underlying perceptual causalityCognitive Brain Research24(1), 41-47.

Morgan, M. J., & Corballis, M. C. (1978). On the biological basis of human laterality: II. The mechanisms of inheritanceBehavioral and Brain Sciences1(2), 270-277.

(Pictured is Dr. Corballis at one of the beautiful beaches of Waiheke Island)

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