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Interview with Gregory Hickok

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

📷 Gregory Hickok

Journalist: Anna Yang

Interviewer: Welcome to SciSection! My name is Anna and I’m a journalist for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Gregory Hickok, a professor of cognitive sciences at UC Irvine, the director of the Center for Language Science, and the author of the book The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me Dr. Hickok.

Dr. Hickok: Thank you Anna, it’s good to be here.

Interviewer: To begin, could you give us an overview of your career so far?

Dr. Hickok: Sure. It’s about 30 years into the career, I got my degree in ‘91, and it was basically a psychology degree, I was doing psycholinguistic research and then got into the neuroscience side of it. I did a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Steve Pinker, where I started working on aphasia and language-related issues, and then spent some time at the Salk Institute with Ursula Bellugi doing sign language research and its neural organization. I then went to the University of California, Irvine, where I’ve been ever since, and I’ve been working on the neurobiology of language and speech and hearing from a bunch of different angles, and in fairly broad perspectives. So that’s the brief overview.

Interviewer: That’s amazing. So you’ve had a lot of success in your career so far, what would you say you’ve done differently compared to your peers throughout your career to help you become who you are today and have the kind of success that you’ve had?

Dr. Hickok: One of my approaches, or my general approach — it’s not uncommon, but it’s maybe not the most common, which is I tend to take a very broad picture. I like to kind of understand the broad outline of the system I’m working on, and so I look at the big picture, essentially, and I try to get insight into how that big picture is organized, based on looking at other systems. So I’m interested in language and speech, but to understand how that system might be organized in the brain, I look to other systems like vision, and other domains where I can get some inspiration to thinking about this sort of organization. So I try to connect the bigger picture dots within the language network as well as beyond the language network. That may be a bit different than how some people approach the problem — not necessarily better or worse, but just maybe a little bit different.

Interviewer: That’s awesome. And could you tell us about some of the challenges that you’ve faced along the way and how you were able to overcome them?

Dr. Hickok: Well, the usual challenges of course, that any academic has: getting funding for their research, that’s always a struggle. Grant funding is limited to — in a typical government-funded grant — between 10-20% of all the applications that are being considered get funded, so we’re always competing for grants, and that’s been a struggle. I’ve been successful in general, you know, if you look at my record it looks like I’m pretty successful in getting grants but it’s been a struggle to get them and it takes a lot of time. Maybe a little bit challenging in my case because a lot of the ideas that I’ve been promoting have been kind of against the mainstream, so I’ve often promoted ideas that are different and reframing some of the ways of thinking in the field, and that makes things even harder to get published sometimes, so I’ve struggled a bit with that sort of thing, but in general I think it’s the typical kind of struggles that an academic has, just getting funded, getting published, and trying to get the fruits of their work out into the public domain.

Interviewer: So speaking of your ideas, what sorts of research projects are you and your lab currently working on?

Dr. Hickok: Yeah, so I work on a lot of different things, it’s a very broad perspective, so everything from primary auditory cortex coding of low level sounds to the neurobiology of syntax. It spans a fairly wide range. Methodologically, we use a bunch of different methods, so functional MRIs are one of the methods we use, we use behavioural research, it’s highly collaborative. So we’ve been doing a lot of stroke work lately, we do computational modelling, all sorts of things. So the kind of topics that we’ve been into lately are things like working on a new model for the neural architecture of syntax, we’ve been working on aspects of speech production, including its neural architecture, and developing computational models of the process of just producing a single word, which turns out to be really complicated. Sensory motor aspects of speech and language production, coding in the auditory system and functional and anatomical connectivity in the language networks; so those are like a sample of some of the general topics that we are investigating.

Interviewer: Yeah, that all sounds incredibly fascinating and it’s a very broad range, as you said, so what originally made you interested in studying language and the human processing of it?

Dr. Hickok: I was decidedly not interested in it at all, at first. As an undergraduate, I was interested in neurological disorders, you know, all sorts of things. I read Oliver Sacks’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat as an undergraduate and I was fascinated with the neurological disorders that could emerge in people, and so I was interested in neuropsychology, generally, not so much speech and language, which was one of my least favourite topics in neuropsychology. But I happened, as academic careers often go, I happened to get admitted to a program where the kind of neuropsychology that was happening was done by a person named Edgar Zurif, who’s doing speech and language research, and so I started learning about it, and became fascinated with it. It’s kind of a typical story where language seems not so complicated and uninteresting because we’re all so good at it, you know — it’s just language, you talk, and that’s all there is to it — but when you start looking at it, it becomes a terribly complicated and interesting problem. So that’s kind of how I got into it, and it just kind of took of from there, so it was kind of accidental.

Interviewer: So in addition to your work as a researcher, you also wrote a book called The Myth of Mirror Neurons. For those of us who aren’t already familiar, could you give a brief summary of the book and tell us a bit about your reasons for writing it?

Dr. Hickok: Yeah, sure. So, mirror neurons are a very interesting class of neurons that were found in the motor cortex in monkeys back in the early 1990s. And they have interesting properties, they respond both when a monkey is reaching for objects and when a monkey is observing other people reaching for objects. In some cases they show correspondence between the kinds of reaches and object interactions that drive these neurons to respond, so there’s a correspondence there. And understanding what these things were doing was not so trivial, it wasn’t obvious what the purpose of these cells in the macaque monkeys was, and the theory arose that the receptive response in these neurons had to do with understanding actions, even though they were in the motor cortex, and traditionally we don’t think of the motor cortex as being involved in comprehension. So this theory came about that we understand actions by simulating actions in our own motor system, and that’s what mirror neurons were supposed to reflect, and this idea got very popular in the 2000s, and started being promoted as explanations for all sorts of things, from speech and language, which is kind of why I got interested in them, to autism to empathy to theory of mind, to crazy stuff like art appreciation and why we like sports, and all sorts of things. So it became the explanation for all things human, and culture, and all these sorts of things. So, I got interested in them because of their connection with language. People were saying that they were an explanation for language and could explain a lot of language ability and behaviour. And that was kind of my area of research, and there were a few things that didn’t quite make sense, based on what I knew about language disorders and so on. So I started looking into it, and what I realized was that even though mirror neurons do exist - the myth is not the existence of mirror neurons, it’s in the explanation of what they’re supposed to be doing - I realized that the data didn’t really support the claims. And that was true even in the monkey work, and although [the data] was consistent with the claims, there was no proof of that in the monkey work. And when we look to humans, in language and in other domains, there was pretty strong evidence against the idea that these motor-based mirror neurons were somehow involved in understanding. And so I didn’t do much with it for a while, but when I was talking about my own language research at talks, I would say this is not a mirror neuron thing, that’s something different, and then I would kind of move on to my own research, and at one point some people asked me to write a critical review, a journal editor asked me to write a critical review on mirror neurons, which I did and that got a lot of interest. Pat Churchland, a philosopher at UCSD [University of California, San Diego], learned of my work and encouraged me to write a book about it, and so I said: “Well, if you think people are going to be interested, maybe I’ll do that.” So that’s kind of how that came about.

Interviewer: I think it’s awesome that you took the time to write this book for the general public, I think that most people don’t really get opportunities to engage critically with science and usually what they see is just the articles in popular media, and as we can see in the case of mirror neurons, these articles don’t always represent the empirical data in the most accurate way, so it’s really great that you’ve written this book which is meant for a more general audience but which which presents the information more accurately and more comprehensively than most articles in the media do. I just have two more questions, the first is: what advice would you like to give to students who are interested in pursuing a career in neuroscience, or perhaps science in general?

Dr. Hickok: If you get excited about science, and discovery, and all these sorts of things, it’s a wonderful career. You get to discover stuff that no one’s ever known before, and you get to decide what to work on, it’s a really fascinating area. Rather than just reading about stuff that you’re interested in, you can actually be part of the process and generate new knowledge. And that’s really really exciting. But in order to succeed, like I’ve kind of hinted already, it’s not an easy career. We struggle for grant funding, getting jobs is not so easy, it’s a lot of work, a lot of it is slow and tedious. It can take years from the idea of a research project to actually seeing it published, and sometimes at the end of that process it gets rejected, and you have to be able to persevere in those situations and just push on, and that’s the struggle. But if you love it, if you really love the discovery aspect of it, and thinking deeply about a problem, and making progress and understanding it, it’s worth all the struggles. And so I would encourage people who have that drive and that motivation to pursue it. See what it’s like, and you can get into a neuroscience or other PhD program and start doing research and get a research degree, a PhD, but then there are many students who go on and work in industry. So you can get your feet wet, see what you think, get a degree that can translate into other areas as well and you don’t have to go the academic route either, so that’s also an option.

Interviewer: Yeah, thank you for sharing your advice. I just have one more question to end the interview: if you could travel to any time period, past or future, when would you go and why?

Dr. Hickok: Hmm. I’m fascinated with history, and the period I’m really fascinated with is — being a language person — the period when a lot of language discoveries were being made, in the mid-1800s. And so I would love to be around, and be able to talk to people who were making these early discoveries like Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke and other people who were working in these areas, to kind of see what it was like when those first discoveries were being made, so that’s probably where I might go, from an academic, scientific standpoint. And then of course, I would love to know what the world and the field looks like in a hundred years or so, so that’s probably common to everyone.

Interviewer: Yeah, thank you, that’s a very fitting response. So that does bring us to the end of the interview Dr. Hickok, thank you again for joining me today and for all of your hard work researching language and how we process it, thank you. And for everyone listening, that’s it for this week of SciSection, make sure to check out our podcast available on global platforms for all of our latest interviews.


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