Michael Merzenich '64 | University of Portland

Michael Merzenich '64

“The most powerful and staggeringly complex electro-biochemical machine ever created is in your head. You’re wearing it. It’s perched on your neck. You’re carting around ten billion neurons in a small calcium shell, laced with organic pumps and channels and switches, with wiring and plumbing so dense and complicated that even this astounding organ can barely imagine itself….” So began an article in the University’s Portland Magazine about the alumnus who became one of the world’s foremost scientists of the brain, of learning, and of human possibility: a quiet smiling man named Mike Merzenich, whose work has changed the lives of many thousands of families, revolutionized brain science, and led to more riveting questions about creativity than anyone can count.

Born to a German Catholic family in Lebanon, Oregon, Mike arrived on the Bluff in 1960 planning to be a physician, but his meeting the eccentric, brilliant, and kindly science professor Blondel Carlton changed everything. “Blondel and others woke me up to the joy of pursuing scientific knowledge in its purest sense. They saw something in me I hadn’t seen—perhaps a classic University of Portland story. I became absorbed in neuroscience. But I never left behind a fascination with religion and ethics and the greater issues of humankind, which are directly linked to the workings of the brain. That’s been my work, in the largest sense, and I awoke to it on The Bluff. I will always, always be grateful to the University for that.”

After graduation, Mike worked with the celebrated neuroscientist John Brookhart, earned a doctoral degree at Johns Hopkins University, and finally found a home for years of discovery at the University of California at San Francisco. In short, Merzenich (described by one colleague as “a lovely combination of Santa Claus and a mad scientist”) leapt into a stunning science career. He helped invent a cochlear implant that helped thousands of deaf people ‘hear’ and learn much faster. He helped language exercises and computer games that revolutionized learning for students with language problems. He founded the Scientific Learning Corporation to “dramatically alter the lives of children with learning problems because of physical ailments.” He started other companies to help people and families enduring Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, strokes, schizophrenia, and autism; “when a person is ill the whole family is ill,” as he says. He earned one international prize after another for his work. He watched with pleasure as one of his three children became a scientist. He somehow found time to deliver talks on the brain and learning on The Bluff. He developed a vineyard in Napa Valley. He dreams of new companies to start and new experiments to try. He follows his beloved San Francisco Giants. And he remains fascinated not by what he knows, which is considerable, but by what he doesn’t, yet, which is incomprehensibly vast—but not out of reach.

“My point of view as a brain scientist will always be provoked by issues of philosophy and questions about the origins of spirit and consciousness,” he says, cheerful as always. “We understand a lot at this point about the workings of the brain on a physiological level—and yet there are still great mysteries. How do the spiritual aspects of who we are rise out of this extraordinary machine? What might we do to heal and elevate lives with even more creative use of our brains?”