Friday, 15 June 2012

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!

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