by Don Queen, OLLI member

This winter, David Presti returns to OLLI to co-teach a unique and imaginative class entitled “Dimensions of Silence in the Human Experience.” He brings to OLLI two decades of experience as a neurobiologist and cognitive scientist as well as ten years as a clinical psychologist. Each class will feature a speaker who will explore the role of silence in disciplines such as film, art, music, language, and neuropsychology. The class will be located at the site of the “Silence” exhibit by the program co-presenter, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA). The class will also have the benefit of intergenerational input with participation of students from his undergraduate course, “Introduction to Neuroscience.”

Presti has taught popular graduate and undergraduate classes as part of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley for over twenty years and has won several teaching awards, including the Golden Apple Award.

His primary research interest is the relation between mental phenomena (such as what is called consciousness) and brain physiology, the so-called mind-body problem. He explains that “for a long time I’ve been interested in the nature of mind and consciousness. Where does this capacity to think and feel and perceive in the way that we do, where does it come from?”

He states, “From very early on I knew that I wanted to study science and work in science to study natural phenomena and understand and help make things better through that understanding. My dad was a chemist for a pharmaceutical company and worked on antibiotics and I was inspired by that … so when I went to college I studied chemistry, and then I got interested in physics and mathematics and … at that time I was particularly interested in the study of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. I was wondering how someone like Einstein could sit in their office, their room, and invent a theory that described the whole universe. How is that possible? So I got very interested in the nature of mind and consciousness: how we humans have the capacity to be able to think these things and do these things.”

Still interested in “How Einstein could do this,” he left Indiana to attend the Caltech graduate program in theoretical physics--“Einstein relativity stuff”--but switched to molecular biology when advised by a “well-known molecular biologist” to study biology and learn more about the evolution and the nervous system, topics very relevant to his interest. “So I switched from physics to molecular biology and did my doctorate in molecular biology and went on to do neurobiology and experimental psychology and another doctorate at the University of Oregon in clinical psychology.“

Presti worked as a clinical psychologist for over ten years for the San Francisco VA Medical Center treating drug and alcohol addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder and then, in the 90s, he began teaching at Cal.

Since 2004, he has been making regular trips to Asia and teaching neuroscience to Tibetan monastics in India as part of a dialogue inspired by the Dalai Lama between contemplative practitioners of various sorts of meditation and Western scientists. He feels meditation practices are another way of gaining access to inner experience and collecting knowledge about the nature of the mind.

The previous classes he has taught for OLLI are “Brain, Mind, Perception, and Consciousness” and “This is Your Brain on Plants.” For the “Silence” course, he will give the lecture, “Silence as a Hallucinogen,” describing the human ear as an instrument constantly bathed in sounds of all kinds. He says that in the absence of sound, brain activity lacks certain constraint and the mind is free to wander.


Read a newer interview of David Presti from April 2018 here: