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 Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…