Professor Raymond Tallis
Professor Raymond Tallis has been listed as one of the top living polymaths in the world. He is a philosopher, a poet, novelist, critic and a retired physician and clinical scientist specialising in geriatrics. Ray is a distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association and a patron of Dignity in Dying.
True science is full of bitter disappointments, only charlatans win a prize every time.
On becoming interested in science
I mean, one can remember, as all of us can, before you go to bed when you’re a small child, wondering what’s on the edge of space and if there was more space on the edge of space why was it the edge of space, all those classic sort of questions of the feeling of oneself being a tiny little dot tossed into a boundless, limitless ocean of something and then nothing. I think I became simultaneously interested in metaphysical questions on the one hand, and scientific questions, when I was a teenager. And I was genuinely curious, but also quite frightened as well. I mean, there was certainly a period when I was sure that we didn’t have free will, you know, we were material objects wired into a material world, so all the credit I took for passing my A levels and things like that, pretty empty stuff, because I was just as free as a pebble falling in a gravitational field, ah, so that was a concern I had.
But there was, I think, a genuine excitement, particularly when I was a teenager – roughly the time that Crick and Watson got the Nobel Prize – that we’re going to solve an awful lot of things that would explain what kind of creatures we were. I declared myself a biochemical materialist at the age of 15, which seemed cutting edge sort of stuff really, and most of the arguments with myself, over the last 150 years, have been the quarrels with the biochemical materialist who was aged 15!
On becoming interested in the mind
I guess I became interested in the mind and the brain at roughly the same time. It was when I was a student at Oxford and I had lots of very interesting discussions with my wonderful tutor. I majored in neurophysiology before I went on to do medicine, and my tutor was infinitely patient and infinitely courteous – a chap called Roy Kay – and we used to argue endlessly about the extent to which you could explain mental function by referring to neurological activity in the brain. We never resolved our arguments, but I’m afraid I’ve been arguing with him ever since.
On medical career
I was professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester and my particular area of interest was stroke and epilepsy and generally neurological disease. My most long-standing interest was in neurological rehabilitation, in looking at the ways in which we could exploit the brains’s power to recover in order to restore function in people who had neurological disease.
I’m not a great original scientist. I’m very much somebody who contributes, or contributed, his particular grain of sand to the sand heap, as it were. So in many ways I didn’t have any eureka moments, but I worked with some eureka people and I think, for me, the most important experience was working in Southampton with a person called Lee Illis, who was very much into the notion that in order to help the brain, or indeed the spinal cord, from damage, you needed to simulate the activity or the kind of experience the brain and the spinal cord had during normal life, before the person was injured. And that’s an idea that has certainly driven, or had driven, all of my research.
How could we, as it were, simulate normal activity in order to promote recovery of the brain, exploiting its plastic capacity to recover function after damage. So it was within a framework set by people much more intelligent than me that I then operated on some very specific and small problems.
Of course, they weren’t small problems to the patients, but I was particularly interested, for example, in, initially, patients who had Multiple Sclerosis and in particular people who had Multiple Sclerosis predominately affecting the spinal cord.
And the fundamental notion was to, as it were, input into the spinal cord, and ultimately into the rest of the nervous system, at least something corresponding to something that it would normally experience during everyday unimpaired life. So, the first piece of work I did under the supervision of Lee Illis was putting electrodes in the epidural space, right next to the spinal cord, stimulating the spinal cord in the hope of raising, what we called then the Central Excitatory State, in order to give the brain something, as it were, to work on and hopefully restore function.
I’m afraid it didn’t work. Like most of the things I explored, they didn’t work, which in many ways is a tribute to my honesty. I did so much research in this field, it’s a very difficult field, and I was always worried that my research team would get a bit disillusioned but my motto for them, to cheer them up, was that basically true science is full of bitter disappointments, only charlatans win a prize every time. I’d like to have won a prize once or twice, and we did have one prize by accident.
Going right back to the beginning in the work on spinal cord stimulation, it didn’t improve the function of people with MS, Multiple Sclerosis, but surprisingly it improved the blood flow in their legs, and that has now been adopted as a technique for people who have very late stage inoperable vascular disease in their legs. So that was one, as it were, consolation prize. But that was a long time ago, ah, but that was the framework subsequently in which all my research took place.
On advancements in studies of the brain
It’s difficult to compare different sorts of advancements but to me, as a clinician, the most important and interesting ones have been an acknowledgement of the extraordinary plasticity of the brain. I mean, the brain is plastic until it’s buried and that’s, for me, who was working with older people, was a very encouraging thought, and our increasing understanding of what it is that drives that plasticity. I think those are the two things, as a clinician, that I found most interesting.
Of course, as a metaphysician I’m less impressed by what neuroscience has to offer us in terms of understanding, for example, the mind, or what it is to be a human being.
So, the most obvious problems are those in relation to philosophical questions, perhaps. As we understand more and more about the correlation, looser than is often stated, between aspects of experience and aspects of behaviour on the one hand and neural activity on the other. As we understand more and more about this, so it becomes actually more and more puzzling to understand two things. How is that neural activity, or what role does neural activity play in normal behaviour and normal experience and, secondly, how is it all put together? Because one of the very interesting developments in neuroscience has been the increasing tendency to allocate parts of consciousness and parts of normal function to different parts of the brain. So we have a genuine problem in understanding how we work as a whole,and perhaps, to some extent, how the brain works as a whole.