Dick Passingham is an undergraduate from Balliol College, where he studied Psychology and Philosophy, he then went on to train in clinical psychology in London before doing a Ph.D there in cognitive neuroscience. He later returned to the Department of Experimental Psychology in Oxford in 1970 and worked as a postdoc for 5 years before being made a University Lecturer in Psychology in 1976. For many years, Dick Passingham taught cognitive neuroscience and animal behaviour in the Department and tutored in psychology and human sciences at Wadham. He later concentrated on teaching cognitive neuroscience at undergraduate and graduate level in the Department, tutoring in neuroscience subjects in College. Dick Passingham’s research has been on the mechanisms of decision making and motor learning in the brain. He has worked with non-human primates as well as with patients with neurological disorders. In 1993, Dick Passingham was made an ad hominem Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience in 1993 and a Professor in 1997. He is also an Honorary Principal at the Wellcome Centre for Imaging Neuroscience, London. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2008. Dick is now spending more time working on writing books, he is currently working on a book called The Uses and Misuses of Brain Imaging. Please enjoy my interview with Dick Passingham…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I study the brain. I’m a neuroscientist.
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf about Alexander von Humboldt who invented ecology and noticed that the same plants could be seen in South America and Africa. We now know that the explanation is continental drift.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. There is a real danger when people speculate about human evolution that they produce ‘Just So Stories’ that may be plausible but have no grounding in fact. Kipling’s stories on how the elephant got its trunk and so on are delightful fantasies that do not pretend to be fact, and they still appeal to children (and adults).
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
An actor. And when I give talks and seminars I guess that is what I am still being.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
I didn’t think I was any good for many years. So I’d think ‘he’s done good’.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell. Not only did I become an atheist; I also learned how to write English using plain words. The difference, of course, is that Russell was a great wit, whereas I am only a minor one.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
No, but I can’t read in bed because I have degenerating disks in my upper neck and it hurts.
The Evolution of the Brain and Intelligence by Harry Jerison. This was an astonishing tour de force, reconstructing the brain casts of fossil mammals and other vertebrates and suggesting what it is about the brain that relates to intelligence. One of the themes of my working life has been to try to find out what is special about the human brain.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
Yes, I have the philosopher Dick Hare’s book The Language of Morals. He taught me as an undergraduate and encouraged me to think clearly.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Oil by Upton Sinclair. It is one of the great American Novels and it exposes the corruption that can result and has resulted from unbridled capitalism. My political views are not those of Noam Chomsky but I admit to being a leftie.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Non-fiction, because as a scientist I am interested in how things really are. I especially like biography. I am definitely not interested in science fiction.
Do you think reading is important?
Yes, because reading is thinking. When I am trying to solve some scientific problem, I always jot down notes and try to re-organize them until I begin to see the solution. It is easier to assess one’s own thoughts when they are down on paper. Correspondingly, reading what someone else has written provokes thoughts in your own mind.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. Neurosurgery requires great skill and courage but it also requires the ability to cope with making mistakes that can have devastating effects on the patients. This book shows that not all surgeons are heartless machines.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Digital books because at the age of 73 my eyesight is not what it was and you can enlarge the font. But, of course, I would really prefer to be reading in hard copy because of the feel of the book in your hands.
Animal Farm by George Orwell. It shows how easily the goodies turn into baddies. Beware political power.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin. Darwin was not the first person to have the ideas of evolution and of natural selection but in this book he set down so much evidence that all but those who are prejudiced for religious reasons have to be convinced. With Newton’s Principia Mathematica this is the greatest book in science.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, and in particular the first two of the three volumes. He didn’t live the life of a saint but he did write with a prose style worthy of a saint.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I am going to read Post Truth by Matthew D’Ancona. I have re-read 1984 by George Orwell, the most important text on this issue, and now want to see what D’Ancona has to say about Breitbart News and other dark organizations.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Ups and Downs because I have severe bipolar disorder (it is in the family) and so my life has been very rocky and I am lucky to have got through and been successful.