Sunday, 26 February 2017
May / June 2013
Always on His Mind
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Tech entrepreneur Jeff Hawkins '79 has long been fascinated by how the brain works—and he aims to find out

By Beth Saulnier

Every once in a while, former computing and information science dean Bob Constable will have what he calls a "Hawkins event." He'll reach for his keychain, which contains two nearly identical keys, and inadvertently stick the wrong one into his front door lock—then realize his mistake with a flash of alarm. Or he'll be walking on an icy sidewalk and strive to stay upright by putting one foot carefully in front of the other—something humans don't generally worry about after toddlerhood.

The common denominator is that the normal suddenly becomes abnormal. The world we expect to encounter after years of experience—how a key slides into a lock, or how it feels to walk—suddenly throws us for a loop. Something we've long done on autopilot requires our active attention.

brain scan

Constable's nickname for such incidents is in honor of Jeff Hawkins '79, the pioneering tech entrepreneur who has devoted considerable amounts of his time, energy, and fortune to understanding the human brain. Trained as an electrical engineer, Hawkins is a Silicon Valley legend: inventor of the Palm Pilot, founder of Palm Computing and Handspring, creator of the Treo line of smartphones. But in addition to mobile computing, Hawkins has another passion: he has itched to understand how the brain works ever since he was an adolescent who went to his local library looking for the definitive book on the subject and came up empty. Over the course of decades, he has developed a working theory of the brain—specifically its neocortex, which makes up 80 percent of its volume—as a system that makes sense of the world via memory, prediction, and pattern-recognition. (Hence the "Hawkins event.")

Though Hawkins may not have a PhD in neuroscience, he's nobody's idea of a dilettante; rather, he's what an earlier age might have called a gentleman scholar. Grown wealthy through his business ventures, he's using his resources to study a subject that has long fascinated him. "I felt that this was a grand challenge," he says, "and one that could sustain interest for a lifetime." And as Hawkins himself happily admits, he's a man on a mission: he wants both scientists and laypeople to get excited about figuring out what's going on between their ears. "Understanding the brain and how it functions is to me, and to many people, probably one of the greatest scientific and intellectual quests," Hawkins says. "Everything we've ever done—our art, music, culture, politics, science—are all products of our brain. To understand who we are as humans, you have to understand how our brains work."