William Harris describes his fascination for the evolution of our brains and how ice hockey has helped him to communicate the science.

In his 2022 book Zero to Birth, How the Human Brain is Built, developmental neurobiologist William Harris includes ice hockey analogies to describe how the body’s most complicated organ develops in the womb, drawing on a 40-year career studying fruit fly, salamander, frog and fish embryos.

Harris, professor emeritus at Cambridge University, UK, played the sport growing up in Canada and is now a coach. “A coach will have tryouts and select the best players for different positions,” he says. “The brain does the same thing. Maybe two neurons try out for every position, one makes it that’s a little bit better at communicating, and the other one doesn’t, going through a process called apoptosis. The survivors have to last your whole life.”

Harris highlights some differences between human and animal brains, (cerebral cortex size, for example, and how newborn babies are hard wired to understand and develop speech). Writing the book, he believes, made him respect human and animal brains even more. “Probably our brains are the most unique things about us. We have unique faces, but our brains are even more unique. You just can’t see them,” he says.

Tales from the Synapse is a 12-part podcast series produced in partnership with Nature Neuroscience and introduced by Jean Mary Zarate, a senior editor at the journal. The series features brain scientists from all over the world who talk about their career journeys, collaborations and the societal impact of their research.