Memories, mind-wandering, and the evolution of language

“It was a dark and chilly winter’s night, but the crowd in the foyer of the Charles Luney Auditorium at St. Margaret’s College didn’t let that deter them. They were bundled up warm, busy chatting to their friends, and keen to get into the auditorium to hear Auckland University’s Michael Corballis present ‘Mental Travels in Space and Time’.”

Did you just get an image in your head of how that scene might have looked? If you’ve ever been into the Charles Luney Auditorium before, your mind will have travelled back there, remembered how it looked, and added in people in winter clothes and cold dark weather to suit the story.

If you haven’t been to this particular location, you might have remembered your old school auditorium instead, or maybe the foyer of the old Christchurch Town Hall or Isaac Theatre Royal, and pictured the scene as if it was happening there. Either way, regardless of how you imagined this scene, you based it upon your memories of a time you were in a particular location, and what you saw and heard, and how it made you feel.

You have just used your brain for mental time travel – using memories as a way to imagine ourselves in places and times that we are not currently in. That was the topic of Professor Corballis’ speech, held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Society Te Apārangi. The audience learnt about the hippocampus – the part of the brain which helps form memories of events, and which reinterprets those memories and helps us daydream and imagine ourselves in new places and times.

It’s because of the hippocampus that we can empathise, and put ourselves in another person’s situation, why authors and storytellers can come up with fictional made-up stories, and why readers sometimes get so caught up in the stories they are reading – our brain is letting us experience the story in the same way as it would if we were actually living it.

The audience also learnt what happens if the hippocampus is damaged. If this happens, you can’t form memories of the things you have done, but you remember skills that you have learnt. Could you imagine not having any memories of specific events? Or having others tell you that you have done something or gone somewhere with them, but you don’t remember doing it? Yet at the same time, you don’t have any difficulty remembering how to carry out skills such as walking, talking, or drawing? I can’t imagine that personally, but we heard about some individuals for whom this is normal.

Cover of The truth about language

The speech Professor Corballis gave was entertaining and informative, and these same characteristics come through in his new book The Truth About Language. I really enjoyed how accessible this book is – no matter your background, the conversational writing style is easy to read. With anecdotes, quotes from literature, and references to historical and contemporary linguistic theories, Corballis tells the story of how language came to be, and why it is so different in different countries and communities.

Don’t worry if you aren’t a linguist – you will still be able to understand the points Corballis is making, and enjoy the information found in this book. For those readers who do want a more in-depth understanding of the evolution of language, however, the book includes references to other theories and theorists, generous explanatory notes, and a comprehensive bibliography to guide further reading.

From the big bang to the different languages used world-wide in 2017, there are so many aspects of language – body language, pronunciation and sounds, grammar, and so much more. Michael Corballis’ The Truth About Language is a fun way to learn about this fascinating subject, and Christchurch City Libraries has a range of his other books that delve further into the subject. So, if language, the mind, and psychology are things you’re interested in, then check them out on our catalogue!

The Truth About Language: What it is and where it came from
by Michael Corballis
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN: 9781869408633

Find out more

Wrap your brain around your brain: Thought provoking books on the human brain

Understanding the human brain was always going to be a topic which … well which fascinates the human brain. If you need any proof of just how interesting we find it, just look at this list of recent library books on the topic.

Neuroscience is a hot topic and brain imaging has made it apparently explicable to us all – ooh look at that bit light up when he looks at a picture of his beloved.

It turns out its not that simple. Scientists,  theologians and philosophers are still arguing about some very basic definitions –  like whether the mind resides in the brain or if it is something else altogether, and do we really know what those glowing synapses are telling us? The final verdict could revolutionize our view of ourselves.

The prospect of understanding how we tick in a whole new way has led to some thought provoking questions. Recent books in our collection explore them:


Try some of them out, and wrap your brain around the topic of your brain.

Barbara Strauch and the mystery of the missing keys

Barbara StrauchLate Friday afternoon at the Festival brought me to a session for the middle-aged (which it turns out I am – age range is apparently 40 to 68, although Barbara describes this range as ‘squishy’ (which I also am …)).  A vigorous conversation between Barbara Strauch and Kim Hill, this was a great introduction to Barbara’s recent book, Secrets of the Grown-Up Brain.  I’m about halfway through this book at the moment, and am finding it both scary and reassuring.

Sadly for many in the audience, the particular mystery of the missing car keys remained unsolved during the session, although the book has a lot more clues about what’s going on in our minds as we age.

There’s both good news and bad, it seems.  There are just some things that decline with age, and episodic memory is one of them.  It sucks, but it’s life, apparently.  The good news, however, is that other abilities have been shown to improve with age, things like logical reasoning, and problem-solving.  And although parts of our brains are dying off, we have what’s called a ‘cognitive reserve’, a kind of emergency stash of brain power that we can call on as needed.  Also, according to new research, and in contrast to previously held beliefs, we can and do create new brain cells, even as we age.

Barbara described some of the myths of middle age – empty nest syndrome (based on a study of 15 or so women living in a mental institution), and the midlife crisis (apparently suffered by only 5 % of the population).  She also talked about the ‘culture of decline’ in the West, where we have been conditioned to believe that life is all downhill after 35.

This was another of those fascinating sessions that it’s impossible to do justice to in a short blog post, and as I said in a previous post – go, find the book, read the book, discuss the book!  And then you can come and help me find my keys …