Take 10 with... Paul Corballis

Associate Professor Paul Corballis from the School of Psychology, gives us 10 minutes of is time to discuss brain mechanisms that support our visual interaction with the world.

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

The cognitive neuroscience of visual perception, attention, and cognition.

2.   Now describe it in everyday terms!

 I am interested in how we use vision to create a useful representation of the world around us and the people and objects that are in it.  Vision is a much more complex and active sense than we normally give it credit for, and what we see or choose to focus on changes depending on our goals and expectations.  My research focuses on the brain mechanisms that support our visual interaction with the world.

3. What are some of the day-to-day research activities you carry out?

Most of my research takes place in the High-Density EEG Lab in the School of Psychology.  We record small changes in electrical potentials distributed over the scalp while research participants process simple visual stimuli.  We then try to relate these electrical signals to different aspects of visual perception or attention.

4.   What do you enjoy most about your research?

 There are many things to love about research - the spirit of discovery, and the opportunities for creativity and problem solving chief amongst them.  If I’m honest with myself, though, I think the best part of research for me is the social aspect.  Interactions with clever and interesting students, colleagues, and collaborators give me great pleasure and ensure that every day is different from the last.  

5.  Tell us something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research (it could be a discovery, an anecdote or even a funny incident). 

I have worked quite a lot with “split brain” patients, who have the fibre tract connecting the two hemispheres of the brain disconnected to relieve epilepsy.  At least in the patients I have met, the operation is very successful in treating epilepsy, but the two hemispheres can no longer share much information between them.  Pictures or words that are shown to one side of the brain are inaccessible to the other side, and sometimes the right side literally doesn’t know what the left side is doing.  All this is described in detail in introductory textbooks in psychology and neurology, but seeing it in action is really remarkable.  In everyday interactions these patients seem very normal - typical members of their own communities - but in the lab it sometimes seems like there are two separate minds co-existing in the same body.  An important research question for me has been to try to understand just how these two separated half-brains are able to knit things together well enough to cope in the world.  One patient routinely drove a manual-transmission car - which requires coordination between both sides of the body — for an hour each way to visit us in the lab.  There are still many mysteries to solve with these patients, despite nearly 60 years of fruitful research!

6.   How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

Research is all about challenge.  These range from theoretical and practical scientific questions (What does this result mean? How can I answer this question?) to the more mundane (Who will fund this? How do I find time to focus on research…?).  In cognitive neuroscience, one of the most difficult challenges is to find a way to get at the human brain that allows us to answer our questions.  Many techniques in neuroscience are too invasive to use in humans, or impose other problems for relating brain anatomy and physiology to the psychological questions we wish to ask.  We are always trying to find or create better tools for research, and I spend most of my time during my PhD studies working on new techniques for measuring brain function using optical methods, which were based on measuring tiny fluctuations in light travelling through the brain during the performance of psychological tasks.   This led to a new technique, which we dubbed the “event-related optical signal” or “EROS” (it needed a sexy name), that offers a few advantages over the other techniques that existed at the time.  EROS is complicated enough that only a ew labs around the world have adopted it, but it was a great experience to be present at the creation.

7.  What questions have emerged as a result?

 We continue the search for the Holy Grail technique for cognitive neuroscience that will allow us to make greater progress in addressing the fundamental questions of how the brain enables the mind.  In the meantime, we continue to piece together answers by combining information from whatever sources are available - EEG and MRI, optical methods like EROS, studies of surgical and neurological patients, and lab-based experiments with normal, healthy research participants. 

8.  What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

 Modern cognitive neuroscience has its origins in some of the great questions of philosophy, psychology, and physiology: What is the relationship between mind and brain? How do we come to know our world?  How does the human brain work?  I hope my research will contribute to answering some of these questions, or at least to improving our understanding of human nature and limitations.  

9.  If you collaborate across the faculty or University, or even outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

 Collaboration is vital to my work, and I have many active research collaborations with other researchers in the University, elsewhere in New Zealand, and internationally. My collaborators include neurologists and psychiatrists, engineers, computer scientists, small businesses, and - of course - other cognitive neuroscientists.  The different perspectives that each of these people bring to the table greatly enhance both the quality of the research and my enjoyment of the process.  Many of the questions we work on require skills and knowledge that no single person possesses (at least not me!), so the “two-heads-are-better-than-one” approach is vital to our success.

 10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

 Remember that you have skills and knowledge that your collaborators do not!  I often collaborate with people with extraordinary technical skills in coding, signal processing, physics, physiology, or whatever - and my early-career self often felt like the least qualified person in the group. I’ve come to realise the value of my own skills and knowledge and that I have just as much to contribute as the others.  In the same vein, it’s OK not to be an expert in everything yourself — that’s what collaborations are for, and what makes them fun.