Skip to main content

Paul Zak – Four Way Interview

Paul J. Zak has PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and postgraduate training in neuroscience from Harvard. He is now Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management (3 for the price of one!) at Claremont and Clinical Professor of Neurology at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. He has recently written The Moral Molecule on his work and adventures with oxytocin.
Why science?
Early in my life I rejected the “thou shall” and “thou shall not” top-down view of morality, and then being conned as a teenager led to an interest in human behavior.  Could there be a scientific reason why people are good or evil?  I spent 10 years in the laboratory and doing field studies to figure this out and discovered the key role for  little-studied neurochemical called oxytocin as a key governor of moral behavior.
Why this book?
I have had so many inquiries about my work from the general public, from patients and their families, and from lawyers and judges that I thought it would be useful (and fun!) to lay out the role of oxytocin across these various realms, and how moral behaviors support greater societal prosperity that then stimulates greater morality.  Plus, I’ve done some really crazy experiments to put my findings to the test that are fun to discuss, like taking blood samples at a wedding.
What’s next?
My lab is now actively applying this work to help organizations function more effectively.  For example, working with companies to design oxytocin-rich environments where people are highly engaged and happy at work.  And, with the US military to help them optimize the training of soliders to keep them safe.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
So many things!  First, that this research has spawned a number of clinical trials that are seeking to use oxytocin to help patients.  Second, that the neuroscience I’ve done is actionable–it is being used by organizations, cities, and individuals to foster empathy and connection in order to improve the quality of life.   Third, recognizing and celebrating the often amazing things that human beings do for each other–including strangers–as part of our human moral nature.  We are a much kinder and caring a species than I think we give ourselves credit for, and I show evidence that our kindness is actually increasing in the world.  That’s exciting!

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…