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

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…