Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012
Campus Closeup: Harry Whitaker
In sports, mental focus is a critical complement to athletic ability. The great golfer Bobby Jones recognized this, saying, “Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course…the space between your ears.” Harry Whitaker (Psychology) does not play the game—he caddied as a kid—but he is using his expertise in neuropsychology to help others improve their swing and lower their scores. Whitaker is the coauthor of Playing with Your Mind: Manage Your Brain, Change Your Game.
“Golf involves automatized patterns of activity in the form of swings and putts,” he said. “Practice helps to improve the mechanics, but if your mind is distracted by something, such as the stock market going down, you’re more likely to hook or slice. The brain responds to changes in emotional states that interfere with the automatic processing required for a swing. To play to your full potential, you don’t want to be excessively happy or upset and you don’t want to be distracted. It’s a simple message, but people aren’t always aware of how changes in brain activity affect their golf game. If they can follow the techniques suggested in the book, they will play better.”
Playing with Your Mind is available in paperback or Kindle edition through Amazon. Whitaker said writing a book with an accessible vocabulary for a general audience was a “fun” departure from his many academic publications and presentations about neuroscience.
During a recent trip to Greece, he gave eight guest lectures on the neuropsychology of language after brain damage at the University of Athens Medical School in Greece. Whitaker became interested in that topic while enrolled in the theoretical linguistics doctoral program at UCLA. He parlayed that focus into a faculty position at the University of Rochester, with a joint appointment at its medical school, and a sabbatical in neurology and speech pathology at the Mayo Clinic. “I was born at Mayo, so what goes around comes around.” Whitaker settled in at the University of Quebec in Montreal. He was content as a full professor and had no intention of leaving until the separatist movement intervened.
“Three referenda were held in which residents voted on whether to make Quebec its own country apart from Canada. The result was closer each time, the last one 51-49 percent against the proposal. I figured Quebec might become a separate country if another vote was held, so I started looking to see what other opportunities were out there. Northern was one of three universities that offered me a position. I’ve been here for 15 years.”
Whitaker lives in an 1888 Victorian home in Ishpeming with his wife, Deana, an NMU alumna, and their dog and cat. The story of how the couple reconnected after many years is charming. They graduated the same year from a high school in Tokyo, Japan, where his dad was stationed in the Navy and hers in the Army. The school was returned to the Japanese in the 1970s, so reunions are held at various locations in the United States. The couple saw each other at one such event in Jacksonville, Fla., and kept in touch afterward.
Both had been married previously and Whitaker later asked Deana if she ever considered tying the knot again. For a woman who had sailed across the Atlantic and down the west coast of South America, that took on a double meaning—as in tying bowlines, figure eights and other knots aboard a boat. Whitaker had served in the Navy and was at the helm of the guided-missile cruiser, USS Canberra, since decommissioned. He has captained everything from dinghies to catamarans to 45-foot yawls.
“Deana said, ‘I would only consider getting married again if that person could take me on a honeymoon sailing in the Aegean Sea.’ I replied that it just so happened I was going to be in Athens the following year and would be happy to take her sailing there. That sealed it. We’ve since chartered boats in Chesapeake Bay, the British Virgin Islands, southern France around Bordeaux and along the Caledonian Canal in Scotland (pictured above). Our next trip may be a flotilla sailing between Turkey and Greece.”
Whitaker’s dry-land hobbies include making papier mache masks, which he sells on consignment at Panara in downtown Marquette. The name of his venture as it appears on his card is Corner Gargoyles and the text is bilingual to reflect his time in Montreal (the mask image from the card is pictured). He also gives each of his creations a French name.
“I’ve always been interested in sculpture and carving and had a career as a woodcarver before I started college. I wasn’t good enough to make a career out of it, so now it’s strictly a hobby.”