A Conversation with Author & Evolutionary Neurobiologist Mark Changizi
Reviewer & Author Interviewer, Norm Goldman. Norm is the Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com.
He has been reviewing books for the past fifteen years when he retired from the legal profession.
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Today, Norm Goldman, Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com is honored to have as our guest Mark Changizi author of THE BRAIN FROM 25,000 FEET (Kluwer 2003), THE VISION REVOLUTION (Benbella 2009) and HARNESSED: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella 2011). He is working on his fourth book, this one on emotions and facial expressions, called MAKING FACES: What Our Emotional Expressions Say, and How They Say It.
Mark is an evolutionary
neurobiologist aiming to grasp the ultimate foundations underlying
why we think, feel and see as we do. His research focuses on "why"
questions, and he has made important discoveries such as on why we
see in color, why we see illusions, why we have forward-facing eyes,
why letters are shaped as they are, why the brain is organized as it
is, why animals have as many limbs and fingers as they do, and why
the dictionary is organized as it is.
He attended the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and then went on to the University of Virginia for a degree in physics and mathematics, and to the University of Maryland for a PhD in math. In 2002 he won a prestigious Sloan-Swartz Fellowship in Theoretical Neurobiology at Caltech, and in 2007 he became an assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In 2010 he took the post of Director of Human Cognition at a new research institute called 2ai Labs.
Good day Mark and thanks for participating in our interview
Could you explain to our readers what is an evolutionary neurobiologist and what does it take to become one?
An evolutionary neurobiologist – of my variety, at least – is interested in why we are as we are, rather than some other way. Why is the brain shaped like that, with all those convolutions, for example? I’ve argued that (very roughly) it is a consequence of designing for as small a head as possible. What’s color vision for? I’ve shown it is for sensing skin tone modulations with emotion. What’s the point of pruney fingers. I’ve provided evidence they are our “rain treads,” optimized for channeling water out when we grip?
And to do this sort of
“reverse-engineering” work it helps to have – in addition to a
knowledge of the psychology, neuroscience and biology – a good
grasp of math, physics and computer science. Those are the sorts of
principles natural selection delved into in designing us. And so we
better have them at our disposal if we hope to unpack and comprehend
How and why did you become interested in becoming an evolutionary neurobiologist?
Ultimately, as a kid I was
interested in whatever I thought were the most fundamental questions.
And among the biggest is how meaty chunks like us can be endowed with
brilliant stuff like thoughts and perceptions and so on. I’ll stay
an “evolutionary neurobiologist” as long as I keep finding
foundational questions to work on. When I run out, I’ll move to
Could you briefly tell us something about the books you have published and what motivated you to write the books? Could sum up in a few sentences or paragraphs the main take-home message you hope these readers get from your books?
My books are about my research discoveries.
The most recent – and it just came out this month – is called HARNESSED: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man. It is about how we apes came to have language and music, and thus it is really the story about how we went from Homo sapiens to our genetically identical, but radically transformed, modern selves. I describe how, over time, the sounds of speech culturally evolved to sound like the fundamental solid-object event sounds our ancient non-speech brains already knew how to process. That way, speech got shaped so as to harness ancient brain hardware, and turned that hardware into language hardware. And there’s a similar story for music. Music has come, via cultural evolution, to mimic the fundamental sounds people make when we move. Although there are superficial differences between music and the gait, pitch, loudness and other sounds people make when we move, there are deep underlying similarities, and that’s why music, unlike speech, is evocative. Music is ultimately a sort of portrait, a dynamic portrait of a human moving with emotion in our midst. Just saying this here without the data and arguments in the book, it sounds admittedly crazy. I’m proud of that.
My previous book, THE VISION REVOLUTION, appeared in 2009, and concerned several discoveries I made in visual perception. Color is all about faces, skin and emotion, which is why colors are so evocative. Our forward-facing eyes – and huge binocular field, with which we watch 3D movies – is not for 3D vision at all, but for seeing better in the cluttered forested habitats where we evolved (and this has many implications for doing 3D movies better). I also provide a kind of grand unifying theory of illusions in the book: I show that huge swathes of illusions can be explained by a simple strategy the brain has evolved to carry out. Namely, the brain is slow, and so it tries to generate perceptions not of the way the world was when it shone light on the eye, but on the way the world will be a tenth of second or so later when the perception finally occurs. Correcting for brain slowness turns out to be crucial – all our acrobatic behavior depends on it. The illusions are due to these corrections. Illusions occur when the brain’s guess at what’s going to occur in the next moment is wrong.
My very first book, back in 2003, was called THE BRAIN FROM 25000 FEET, and took up why our brain is shaped as it is, why animals have as many limbs and fingers as they do, why language is vague, and how to put the learning humans do on firm footing.
Do you believe that everything we knew about human vision is wrong and if so, could you explain to our readers why?
Nope. That’s the worst subtitle ever. Yuck. Publisher’s decision. It was my first trade book. If I could do that subtitle situation again, I would have put up a bigger fuss. (I don’t like the title either, but was made happier by making the “R” red in “revolution”, so that it was a play on “vision evolution.” Although, in the paperback the red-“R” had gone away.)
When writing your books, what is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write? How do you organize your information and what sources do you use?
For non-fiction of my
sort, half or more of the creative process is in the scientific
discoveries themselves. I write a lot about how to get ideas, and it
is something science has very little to tell us. We can tell students
how to do good controlled experiments, how to do math, and how to
analyze. But getting the big hypothesis in the first place? No real
idea. I’ve come up with my own techniques, and they involve
notebooks with tiny-handwritten-prose posing idea after idea, and
following them up. After perhaps 99 duds there might be a good one –
unexpected, testable, something worth moving forward on. Also key for
my scientific discovery is to remain aloof, in a number of respects,
but especially from my peers.
But as for the writing process itself… This is the other sort of creative process that occurs in creating a non-fiction trade book. How to present my science discoveries in such a way that I communicate their romance, all the while not dumbing down the actual argument? Discovering how to do that happened much more recently in my career. And it came slowly. I try for a voice that is funny and does not take itself (ahem, myself) too seriously.
Down to brass tacks, I bring just paper and pen to coffee shops, and thereby remove myself from the distractions of the internet. And I just sit and write. Eventually I type in all the new additions and edits, and print out the latest copy (double spaced, two pages on each front sheet, nothing on the back, allowing me lots of editing room), and I take the manuscript to another coffee shop and do another run-through. Repeat. Hundreds of times. (I’m not tree-friendly in this process.)
I’m maybe half way through my first fiction, and it’s a joy just trying to find an efficient mechanism this creative process. I have no idea if my current technique – if I have a consistent one – is sensible. I’ll get back to you on that.
What sites do you frequent on-line to share experiences or information?
I also write a lot of pieces for magazines, and I tend to interact online most with other such writers. And that’s principally a Twitter thing.
Does your writing career ever conflict with your career as a scientist?
It can be complicated. I consciously decided book writing (and magazine piece writing) as a way of buying my intellectual freedom. In science it is easy to get forced into research directions you’d really not do except that you want to get funding. Bringing in money is one (and the main) way to be useful to your university. But another way is to be putting the university’s name out there, via one’s interaction with the public and press. Writing books and magazine pieces does that. This allows me to earn my value, and simultaneously to be able to work on what I want, not on what the funding agencies will fund.
What books have influenced your life most?
Among non-fiction, books like Dawkins’ Selfish Gene were influential, for example. It’s an enjoyable book, but that’s not why it was influential for me. The book also had, in my opinion, some somewhat bad consequences on the way people thought about evolution. But nevermind that. What was great about it, as just one book of many in this vein, is that it was written for laymen and anyone, but aimed toward the science community. When non-specialists read that book, they’re reading part of the conversation of science. A lot of popular science books aren’t like that – they’re sometimes just pleasant summaries of science. The great pop sci aren’t “pop” at all. They’re classics of science.
Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Thanks once again
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