Patricia Churchland

Patricia Churchland is Professor of Philosophy Emerita at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). In addition to that, she has served as President of the American Philosophical Association and the Society for Philosophy and Psychology. Furthermore, she has authored numerous groundbreaking books, her most recent being Touching a Nerve. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of topics from her upbringing in British Columbia, to her favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is Moral Imagination by Mark Johnson. It has been a pleasure to interview Patricia and we hope you enjoy reading about her adventures.


Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I work at the interface of neuroscience and philosophy. I want to know how discoveries in neuroscience bear upon the longstanding questions of traditional philosophy – such as how do we learn our way around the world, how do we make decisions, what is consciousness, where do moral values come from? On all of these questions, neuroscience has shed some light, even if we do not yet have full answers. But it is very exciting because we are learning what makes us the way we are.

Early Life

Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I grew up on a farm in British Columbia, in the Okanagan Valley, which lies between two mountain ranges, the Cascades and the Monashees. In the 1950’s, as I was growing up, it was pretty isolated from the nearest city, Vancouver, on the west coast. Our farm was an orchard – apples, pears, peaches, cherries – though of course, we had a cow and chickens, and sometimes a goat, for our own use. Like all children in the area, we had many chores, and we were poor in terms of material goods. For example, our house, like those of our friends, did not have an indoor toilet until I was seven years old. I knew one girl who had her own bedroom, but everyone else shared with three or four. But we lived in the magnificent countryside, and we all had great freedom to run about the hills and lakes, and for us kids, we had a kind of independence that is totally exhilarating, and pretty much unknown for most kids now. And it made us self-reliant, practical and used to dealing with tough situations and setbacks. We had to become resilient and inventive.

Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: When I was at home, I had to work – collecting eggs, cleaning out the hen house, weeding gardens, doing laundry (wringer style) and so forth, so going to school was a great pleasure – this was true for many of us. Being at school was just a lot easier than working the farm, and besides, we had the pleasure of friends. I really liked everything about school, it was all fun for me. In High School, my worst subject was sewing, so I did not continue with that, but everything else was fun. Our school was exceptionally strong, as the pioneers in the Okanagan Valley well understood the value of education, and they put all their meagre resources into the school. When I went to college, fearing I would be poorly trained relative to the well-heeled city kids, I found the opposite was true. I was way ahead, and I had been taught how to work and work hard, efficiently and systematically.

Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: Not really – teachers did not comment much except when they thought we were not working hard enough or not paying enough attention.


Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: Well, I fell in love with chemistry in 11th grade. Its beauty and explanatory power amazed me. The mathematization of interactions surprised me and it was dazzling. But my teachers said that females did not become chemical engineers, so I had best think of something else to do. The idea that there was such a thing as research in chemistry was unknown to me and our teachers did not raise it. Alas. So I thought a career law might work out instead, though I realised there were two obstacles: (1) women were not admitted to law school, and (2) I had no idea how I could pay for law school. I figured I could talk my way past the first, but the second…..well, the money angle really stumped me. The money issue was also a major problem when I considered medical school. I ended up going to graduate school in philosophy because I had scholarships to do that.

Q: Can you remember the point at which you fell in love with your subject?
A: When I first studied neuroanatomy and neurophysiology after I had been hired as a junior professor in philosophy at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, I was totally hooked. Earlier, the split brain results had captured my attention, and driven me to the textbooks to understand more deeply. But it was when I began to see brains cells under a microscope, visit neurology patients in the hospital, and learn about what problems neuroscience could address, that my passion knew no bounds. I read everything I could lay my hands on, went to neurology grand rounds at the hospital, and became an informal part of the spinal cord lab of Larry Jordan. Once Paul and I had put the kids to bed, I would tell him what I had learned that day, what questions we might eventually be able to address in neuroscience, and we talked for hours. Somehow I managed to teach classes in logic in between all this. A bit hectic, but always exciting.

Academic Education

Regarding your undergraduate studies:

Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I studied at the university that was closest to the farm, about 450 miles. I only applied to that school. That was the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. Going further afield barely crossed my mind, as there was no money to travel, and UBC had offered me some scholarship money. I got a job in the residence cafeteria to help defray costs.

Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: I began expecting to go into law, but as I came to know some law students, I began to have reservations. On a whim, I took a philosophy course, and that seemed to suit me quite well. But I took all sorts of other courses – biology, economics, psychology, English literature, math and so on. It was bliss.

Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: When I read David Hume for the first time – Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion – I was enthralled. Then I read much of his Treatise, and the clarity and logic and practical nature of his approach resonated with me. David Hume was a great inspiration. And he remained so. I still go back and read Hume when I am stuck on something. I did have a biology professor who really understood biological evolution, and that inspired me.

Regarding your postgraduate studies:

Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: I finished my undergraduate degree in 1965, and several of my philosophy professors warned me against going to graduate school, on grounds that women cannot do philosophy. They were absolutely unambiguous on the point. This put iron in my soul. Stubborn as I had always been, I thought “screw them, I will do what I want to do.” As it happened I got a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which seemed to be regarded as quite a big deal. Two faculty members congratulated me, the rest were not amused. Much has changed in the last 45 years, needless to say.

Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: I went to the University of Pittsburgh, which was very strong, especially in philosophy of science. I knew one person who was already there – Paul Churchland – so that seemed liked a fine start. It was indeed quite wonderful since there were amazing graduate students, from whom I learned a lot. But as a country bumpkin, I could not quite get the hang of a big American city, so I never felt at home. Since I had always had a yen to go to England, I applied for various scholarships and was accepted by Somerville College in Oxford, where I stayed for three years.

Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: After World War 2, Oxford realised it had American graduate students who required some sort of advanced degree to be able to land a faculty job. So they designed three degrees (as I learned, this was a hilariously Oxford-style solution to a problem): a D. Phil, which involved only writing a long thesis, a B. Litt, which you got if you failed the D. Phil. oral defense (as people regularly did), and a B. Phil, which, like the American Ph. D. system, involved going to lectures, exams and a thesis. As this was Oxford, it also involved biweekly tutorials during the term. I elected the B. Phil. since it seemed to have a little more interaction with faculty. But the “B” is for Bachelor, which does not sound like “Doctor”, at all. The funny side was that Canadian and American universities did not know what on earth a B. Phil. is, so it required a full explanation when I applied for a job. People still marvel that I do not have a literal PhD. In my B. Phil. dissertation, I was interested in whether explanations of human behaviour could be considered as protoscientific. I now think my dissertation was quite boring. Only after I learned some neuroscience and understood more deeply what an explanation in neural terms looks like, did I have a sensible grasp on the thing.


Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: This is hard to answer – life is full of so many contingencies and luck and making decisions under tremendous uncertainty. If this were 1961 and I was just going to college, I would really immerse myself in all aspects of biology, especially genetics. And I would take as much math as I could fit in.

Research Focus

Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: I want to understand the role of the brain in social behaviour generally, and moral behaviour in particular. By “moral”, I shall provisionally mean something simple: I make a moral decision when I incur a cost to myself in order to benefit another. Research in social neuroscience has begun to reveal the importance of certain neurohormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin as well as the effect of neuromodulators such as the opioids and cannabinoids in attachment and bonding, and in the pleasure, we feel when in the company of those whom we are attached.

Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: Well Neurophilosophy caused quite a stir when it was published in 1986. Its basic theme was that to understand the mind, we need to understand the brain. I have had many young neuroscientists say they left philosophy or psychology for neuroscience after reading the book. I should add, however, that by and large, the philosophers loathed the book. They said I was destroying philosophy, that it was not mainstream philosophy and should be ignored, that I had fallen into the clutches of scientism. And so on. Despite all that carping, Neurophilosophy went on to have a major effect. Francis Crick blurbed the book for MIT Press, calling it a “pioneering work”, a comment that gave me a great boost. I knew enough neuroscience to know the approach in the book was on the right track, and so, stubborn as I was, I laughed off the carping. The book I co-authored with Terry Sejnowski, The Computational Brain (1992) was very different, and it too had a significant impact. As a book, it was first-footing for computational neuroscience, and we tried to make it as useful as we could. And it was tremendous fun to work on. For 1990 I had a sabbatical so I moved into Terry’s lab to write the book and talk to Terry when I could. Various people in Terry’s lab at that time were really useful too – Peter Dayan, Read Montague, Alex Pouget, Bill Lytton, and so on. And Francis Crick came every day for tea, so we often had wonderful discussions at tea time, such as what counts as computation, what counts as an explanation, what would be the best way to attack the problem of consciousness, and so forth. It was wonderful.

Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: To understand how the brain works, we must understand in detail its anatomy. I am immensely pleased to see a range of new techniques emerge that allow us to get anatomical information hitherto out of reach. Additionally, optogenetic techniques have allowed discoveries in functional neuroscience that were only dreamt of 40 years ago, and more techniques are on the horizon. We may not be able to explain in great detail all mental functions, such as planning and remembering, but we will understand the general go of it. Eventually will understand things that now seem puzzling, such as how consciousness is produced in the brain, how memories are retrieved, what personality is, and so forth. As basic research pushes back our ignorance, we will have a shot at understanding many of the 600 or more neurological diseases that cause so much suffering. We will get to the bottom of the dementias, autism spectrum disorder, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and so on. The problems are hard, certainly, but we will get there.

Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: A hundred years is a very long time in modern scientific research. Our time horizon for meaningful predictions is only about 5-10 years out. So I am cautious about predictions for a time horizon longer than 10 years. Nevertheless, I hope scientists will be finding effective ways of forestalling or treating chronic depression, the dementias, schizophrenia, autism, Williams syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and on and on. But many things, unconnected with science itself, can slow progress – famine, wars, various forms of social collapse.


Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: I do not really think like that. I am thrilled to see neuroscience thriving and also to see the number of women making major discoveries. This is enough for me. What matters is that science continues to thrive. All science.

Current Projects

Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: Last summer I worked with a pro to get a proper website – and that was challenging. I am working on a new book, but I prefer not to talk about it because its shape is changing as I learn more.

Advice and Tips

Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Don’t close off any options until you are pretty sure what path you will follow. Learn as much math as you can, for math opens many, many doors; read really broadly outside of your goal – in history, novels, economics, anthropology – broaden your horizons. Once you have embarked on a career, you will want to focus and focus rather narrowly for a time. But once you have a chance to broaden a bit more, take it.

Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Don’t just follows the fads. Be prepared to go against the grain. Don’t exchange independence for resources. Trust your own judgment, but listen to others. I am often saddened by graduate students in philosophy who know only what other philosophers say, and not what economists or neuroscientists or anthropologists have to say. I notice too that they often ask such questions as “are you an internalist or an externalist, a realist or a naturalist or an intuitionist, a social constructivist or a situationist ….. on and on for a range of “ism’s”. This is just not productive. The background idea seems to be that a decent philosopher must be “committed” to a position that he/she then defends against criticism, come what may. That seems a very odd way to explore deep questions for substantive answers. Why not just search for the truth?

Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: Introduction to Nervous Systems, by Bullock, Orkand and Grinnell. Note the plural in “systems”. It was my first and best Bible of neuroscience. This book made a point of comparing the anatomy and physiology of the nervous systems across a range of species, and as I started my love affair with neuroscience with this book, it helped me avoid slipping into the assumption that we need to focus only on the human brain, or that the human brain I utterly unique. Ted Bullock was an archbishop of the field, a deep, deep biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (UCSD) who taught me a huge amount.

Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: Moral Imagination by Mark Johnson.

Think for yourself – you will make mistakes, but at least they are your mistakes.

Q: Why do you think being a freethinker is important?
A: If you let someone else think for you, you are wasting your precious time on this planet and the precious neurones in your brain. Think for yourself – you will make mistakes, but at least they are your mistakes. People might scoff at you and call you an outsider because they cannot pigeon hole you. But keep your eye on real discovery.


Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: A glass of chardonnay from Tinhorn Creek wineries (near my old farm) would be awesome. And do you know that alcohol releases endogenous opioids in the brain?

Feature photo by Vera de Kok [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
If you’d like to find out more about Professor Patricia Churchland you can check out her Twitter page, personal website and Wikipedia page.