Interview: Idan Segev

Idan Segev

Idan Segev is Professor of Computational Neuroscience and former director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation (ICNC) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he received his B.Sc. (1973) in Math and Ph.D. (1982) in Experimental and Theoretical Neurobiology. His research team utilizes computational and theoretical tools to study how neurons, the elementary microchips of the brain, compute and dynamically adapt to our ever-changing environment.

In recent years, Segev‘s laboratory has worked jointly with several experimental groups worldwide in an endeavor to model in detail the cortical column. Segev also takes a keen interest in the connection between art and the brain: he served as editor of a 2011 special edition of the journal Frontiers entitled “Brain and Art.” He has also recently edited an art book with original etchings by ten Israeli artists, prompted by an encounter with ICNC researchers.

NH: I am interested in your perspective on collaborations between artists and scientists. Sometimes there can be friction between the two groups, if either feel that the other is overstepping or talking about something unimportant. I am sure you’ve seen the other side too, where collaborations lead to something new and welcome, or even just new questions. Do you think it’s a good idea for artists and scientists to collaborate to some degree, and what’s your current thinking on how that’s best done and what it can result in, based on what you’ve participated in and witnessed?

IS: I agree that there is inherent tension among these “two cultures,” mostly because they do not understand each other. Their language and styles are different. But these are the two of the most creative groups,and I believe in 50/50 sharing in meetings among them, with discussion ranging from introspection, the process of having a new idea, on the role of memory in creativity, on the role of movement (in creating a piece of art) and, more generally, what is the purpose of each field, when do you say that “this is good” – are all essential subjects to discuss. Such discussion – if successful, will lead to new directions in the brain of the involved groups.

NH: What did you hope to do when you began working on the special Brain and Art Frontiers edition that you edited? And now, generally speaking, when you look back on the wide array of approaches, levels of analysis, and insights throughout all the papers, what did the process of editing the collection teach you about where we are today in exploring the relationship between art and the brain?

IS: It was indeed a “long shot” with the aim, again, on trying to bring dialogue to these “two cultures.” I am hopeful that when this special topic in Frontiers will come out as a unified ebook, in a few months, and when enough people will look at it–thenm in the brain of the reader, this harmful separation between the arts and the sciences will be reduced–that the reader could find similarities in the search for “understanding,” and that he or she will be inspired by commonalities–that in the future art and science museums will collaborate in the same physical building.

NH: Related to the issue of collaboration, there are still those both on the scientific side and from the humanities who deem these interdisciplinary pursuits of brain and art to be misguided, overly reductionistic, or overly romanticized. Just as “hip” as it is to study art in the context of the brain, more and more it seems hip to criticize these pursuits and proclaim that science will never answer or solve the deep questions of human subjectivity. Do you encounter these sorts of reactions and proclamations? What is your attitude on the matter?

IS: I do, and I agree that brain sciences are limited in their pretensions. We (brain scientists as such) are not in the position to, for example, give meaning to things (moral, ethical, etc.)– but we can highlight the physical/biological underpinnings of these (the genetic/brain basis for moral decisions, etc.). So we are not aiming at “taking over” the humanities and the social sciences; rather, we want to understand the physical basis for these (and, after all, the brain, the genes, are all physical elements– no “miracles” or “spirits” run in our heads, but rather electrical spikes and chemicals and molecules). So we will eventually get to the basis of all human actions from the physical perspective (namely Science)– then people will continue (of course) to write poetry, believe in God, or in free will (even if they will know that we are just physics).

NH: I noticed on your website that you call neurons the “aesthetic elementary microchips of the brain.” Why is the aesthetic quality of neurons significant to you, and what roll does your enthusiasm for the dialogue between art and neuroscience play in your daily research at your lab?

IS: Indeed– as one looks at trees in a beautiful landscape, one looks at neurons and sees how intricate their varieties of shapes are. Especially now, with “Brainbow”-like genetic techniques, where one can see these cells (in vivo) stained with a palette of colors, one may use neurons to appreciate their “artistic” quality, for example by having exhibitions based on these techniques. See “the Color of Thoughts” exhibit that is now running in Europe via our Center in Jerusalem.

NH: You’ve just completed a series of lectures for Coursera. With worldwide distribution of high-level academic resources making scientific knowledge more and more readily accessible, how do you hope these new tools will improve education?

IS: This Coursera and alike e-lectures (or MOOC, as they call it) is an amazing new jump in disseminating astute knowledge. It will completely change how Universities function. Getting responses from isolated places, by people who would never be able to experience a serious set of lectures, is amazing. I am very pleased by this direction, and happy to get these compliments and enthusiastic responses. I feel lucky to be in this age of turning points, whereby you can sit alone and learn in the deepest sense. The only thing that is missing, of course, is direct eye-to-eye interaction.

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Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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