The Truth about Language: What It Is and Where It Came From

(Published by University of Chicago Press and Auckland University Press)

Evolutionary science has long viewed language as, basically, a fortunate accident—a crossing of wires that happened to be extraordinarily useful, setting humans apart from other animals and onto a trajectory that would see their brains (and the products of those brains) become increasingly complex.
But as Michael Corballis shows in The Truth about Language, it’s time to reconsider those assumptions. Language, he argues, is not the product of some “big bang” 60,000 years ago, but rather the result of a typically slow process of evolution with roots in elements of grammatical language found much farther back in our evolutionary history. Language, Michael explains, evolved as a way to share thoughts—and, crucially for human development, to connect our own “mental time travel,” our imagining of events and people that are not right in front of us, to that of other people. We share that ability with other animals, but it was the development of language that made it powerful: it led to our ability to imagine other perspectives, to imagine ourselves in the minds of others, a development that, by easing social interaction, proved to be an extraordinary evolutionary advantage.

Even as his thesis challenges such giants as Chomsky and Stephen Jay Gould, Michael writes accessibly and wittily, filling his account with unforgettable anecdotes and fascinating historical examples. The result is a book that’s perfect both for deep engagement and as brilliant fodder for that lightest of all forms of language, cocktail party chatter.

The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking

(Published in the U.S. by The University of Chicago Press)

While psychologists write bestsellers about humans’ smarter side—language, cognition, consciousness—and self-help gurus harangue us to be attentive and mindful, we all know that much of the time our minds are just goofing off. So what does the brain do when you’re not looking?

Rooted in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology but written with Michael Corballis’ signature wit and wisdom, The Wandering Mind takes us into the world of the ‘default-mode network’ to tackle the big questions. What do rats dream about? What’s with our fiction addiction? Is the hippocampus where free will takes a holiday? And does mind-wandering drive creativity?

In Pieces of Mind, Michael took 21 short walks around the human brain. In The Wandering Mind he stretches out for a longer hike into those murky regions of the brain where dreams and religion, fiction, and fantasy lurk.

The Wandering Mind has been translated into Estonian, Italian, Mandarin, and Japanese.

Pieces of Mind: 21 Short Walks Around the Human Brain

(Reprinted in the U.S. and U.K. as A Very Short Tour of the Mind)

Why do we remember faces but not names? If your brain was cut in half would you suffer more than a splitting headache? Does your dog remember where it buried its bone? And do we really only use 10 percent of our brains? In 21 short walks around the human mind, Michael Corballis answers these questions—and more.

The human mind is arguably the most complex organ in the universe. Modern computers might be faster, and whales might have larger brains, but neither can match the sheer intellect or capacity for creativity that we humans enjoy. In this book, Michael introduces us to what we’ve learned about the intricacies of the human brain over the last 50 years.

Leading us through behavioral experiments and neuroscience, cognitive theory, and Darwinian evolution with his trademark wit and wisdom, Michael punctures a few hot-air balloons (‘You only use 10 per cent of your brain!’ ‘Unleash the creativity of your right brain!’) and explains just what we know—and don’t know—about our own minds. From language to standing upright, composing music to bullshitting, he covers some of the fascinating activities and capabilities that go toward making us human.

At one time or another, we’ve all wished that we could get inside someone else’s head. Here’s how.

Pieces of Mind has been translated into Korean, Serbian, Mandarin, and Danish.

The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization

The Recursive Mind challenges the commonly held notion that language is what makes us uniquely human. In this compelling book, Michael Corballis argues that what distinguishes us in the animal kingdom is our capacity for recursion: the ability to embed our thoughts within other thoughts. "I think, therefore I am," is an example of recursive thought, because the thinker has inserted himself into his thought. Recursion enables us to conceive of our own minds and the minds of others. It also gives us the power of mental "time travel"—the ability to insert past experiences, or imagined future ones, into present consciousness.

Drawing on neuroscience, psychology, animal behavior, anthropology, and archaeology, Michael demonstrates how these recursive structures led to the emergence of language and speech, which ultimately enabled us to share our thoughts, plan with others, and reshape our environment to better reflect our creative imaginations. He shows how the recursive mind was critical to survival in the harsh conditions of the Pleistocene epoch, and how it evolved to foster social cohesion. He traces how language itself adapted to recursive thinking, first through manual gestures, then later, with the emergence of Homo sapiens, vocally. Tool-making and manufacture arose, and the application of recursive principles to these activities in turn led to the complexities of human civilization, the extinction of fellow large-brained hominins like the Neanderthals, and our species' supremacy over the physical world.

The Recursive Mind has been translated into Spanish.

From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Language

It is often said that speech is what distinguishes us from other animals. But are we all talk? What if language was bequeathed to us not by word of mouth, but as a hand-me-down?

The notion that language evolved not from animal cries but from manual and facial gestures—that, for most of human history, actions have spoken louder than words—has been around since Condillac. But never before has anyone developed a full-fledged theory of how, why, and with what effects language evolved from a gestural system to the spoken word. Marshaling far-flung evidence from anthropology, animal behavior, neurology, molecular biology, anatomy, linguistics, and evolutionary psychology, Michael Corballis makes the case that language developed, with the emergence of Homo sapiens, from primate gestures to a true signed language, complete with grammar and syntax and at best punctuated with grunts and other vocalizations. While vocal utterance played an increasingly important complementary role, autonomous speech did not appear until about 50,000 years ago—much later than generally believed.

Bringing in significant new evidence to bolster what has been a minority view, Michael goes beyond earlier supporters of a gestural theory by suggesting why speech eventually (but not completely!) supplanted gesture. He then uses this milestone to account for the artistic explosion and demographic triumph of the particular group of Homo sapiens from whom we are descended. And he asserts that speech, like written language, was a cultural invention and not a biological fait accompli.

Writing with wit and eloquence, Michael makes nimble reference to literature, mythology, natural history, sports, and contemporary politics as he explains in fascinating detail what we now know about such varied subjects as early hominid evolution, modern signed languages, and the causes of left-handedness. From Hand to Mouth will have scholars and laymen alike talking—and sometimes gesturing—for years to come.

From Hand to Mouth has been translated into Turkish, Italian, and Japanese.

The Descent of Mind: Psychological Perspectives on Hominid Evolution (Editor)

To most people it seems obvious that there are major mental differences between ourselves and other species, but there is considerable debate over exactly how special our minds are, in what respects, and which were the critical evolutionary events that have shaped us. Some researchers claim language as a solely human, even defining, attribute, while others claim that only humans are truly conscious. These questions have been explored mainly by archaeologists and anthropologists until recently, but this volume aims to show what psychologists have to say on the evolution of mind.

The book begins with a thorough overview of what is known of the non-primate mind and its evolution. Following this, an international range of experts discuss in temporal sequence the human mind at various stages of evolution, beginning with the pre-hominids of 20 million years ago and ending with contemporary human behavior. Accessible to students and researchers alike in psychology, anthropology, evolution, archaeology, and ethology, The Descent of Mind provides a range of provocative answers to the timeless question of what it means to be human.

The Lopsided Ape: Evolution of the Generative Mind

What is it that allows human beings to think the way we do? What enables us to communicate with one another through the use of speech? Is the difference between Homo sapiens and other apes simply a matter of degree or are we unique and discontinuous from other species?

Michael Corballis argues that this century-old debate lies in the fact that humans are the only primates that are predominantly right-handed, a sign of the specialization of the left hemisphere of the brain for language. He attributes humans' unique abilities to a biological mechanism in the left hemisphere of the brain called a "generative learning device" or GAD. The GAD, Michael contends, enables us to generate a limitless number of forms and meanings from a few parsed elements, providing the basis for language and manufacture as well as mathematics, reasoning, art, music, and play. Surveying the current views of evolution using evidence from archeology, linguistics, neurology, and genetics, Michael takes us on a fascinating tour of the origins and implications of the structure of the human brain accounting for the dominance of humanity over all species.

Memory Mechanisms: A Tribute To G.V. Goddard (Editor)

Presenting the work of researchers who are at the forefront of the study of memory mechanisms, this volume addresses a wide range of topics including: physiological and biophysical studies of synaptic plasticity, neural models of information storage and recall, functional and structural considerations of amnesia in brain-damaged patients, and behavioral studies of animal cognition and memory. The book's coverage of diverse approaches to memory mechanisms is intended to help dissolve the borders between behavioral psychology, cognitive neuropsychology, and neurophysiology.

The Psychology of Left and Right

The Psychology of Left and Right deals with the problem of how we tell left from right. Michael Corballis and Ivan Beale argue that the ability to tell left from right depends ultimately on a bodily asymmetry, such as preference for one or the other hand, or dominance of one side of the brain. This has implications for child development, reading disability, navigation, art, and culture.