Pinker’s Brain Picked On ‘Colbert Report’

Though Stephen Colbert said he considers Harvard a “rich nerds’ table,” the popular comedy show host appears to have a bit of a crimson fixation.

Last night, Colbert—who plays a right-wing pundit on his show “The Colbert Report”—welcomed Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker as a guest on his program. The appearance came just two months after Colbert journeyed to Cambridge himself to record segments for his show at the Institute of Politics.

In last night’s segment, entitled “Pinker and the Brain,” Colbert and Pinker discussed basic brain function and human nature. Colbert introduced Pinker by saying that because Pinker is a Harvard professor, he “probably thinks I think he’s a pompous know-it-all.”

Colbert asked Pinker to summarize the brain in five words or less, to which he responded “Brain cells fire in patterns.”

Pinker said he was surprised by his own ability to describe the brain in so few words under pressure.

“I never thought I could sum up how the brain works in exactly five words!” he wrote in an e-mail after he taped the show, adding that he was “pretty nervous beforehand.”

Most of the discussion focused on Pinker’s 2002 book “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature”—a book on evolutionary psychology—as Pinker struggled to explain his beliefs about brain function while Colbert joked and interrupted him.

Colbert also poked fun at Pinker’s 2003 move from MIT to Harvard.

“You were at MIT first then went to Harvard? That’s like going from the nerds’ table to the rich nerds’ table,” Colbert said.

At the “rich nerds’ table,” Pinker continues to be a professor of some of the College’s most popular classes.

Pinker, who has in the past led the popular core Science B-62, “The Human Mind,” is co-teaching Psychology 1002, “Morality and Taboo,” with Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz this spring.

There was no specific occasion for Pinker’s appearance on the show, as he has not published any major works in the past year. A Comedy Central representative said she could not comment on why Pinker was chosen as a guest.

—Staff writer Claire M. Guehenno can be reached at guehenno@fas.harvard.edu.