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A Heavyweight Brain Debate

[ 2 ] April 4, 2012
Sebastian Seung (L) and Tony Movshon.

On Monday, the New York City-based group NeuWrite hosted a public debate on minds, maps, and the future of neuroscience between Sebastian Seung of M.I.T. and Anthony Movshon of NYU, moderated by Robert Krulwich (Radiolab) and the esteemed science writer Carl Zimmer (NYT, Discover). As eager attendees packed Columbia University’s Havemayer Hall on Monday evening and another three hundred watched a simulcast from a nearby room, two things were immediately clear: there is a hunger for a true debate about the brain, one that moves the conversations usually held behind closed doors at scientific conferences and over late-night beers to the public sphere, and Sebastian Seung is wearing gold sneakers.

Credit for organizing the event goes to NeuWrite, an innovative and resourceful group of scientists, writers, and, as their website explains, “those in between: graduate, post-doctoral and faculty researchers, fiction and non-fiction writers, as well Journalism and MFA students at Columbia.” NeuWrite regularly workshops pieces of print journalism and books-in-development with a scientific focus, as well as film, radio, and poetry that present threads of scientific inquiry. In public, this is NeuWrite’s second event about the brain—last year paired Patricia Churchland, author of Braintrust, with Roger Bingham of UCSD and Jesse Prinz of CUNY, for an engaging discussion about morality and neuroscience.

Some were desperate to get in.

It was clear from the opening statements at Monday’s debate that Movshon and Seung represent two different schools of thought, but their conversation ended up being less a “brain brawl” and more a respectful airing of differences. Seung believes neuroscience is stuck in a traditional mode of research, where the necessity to publish the next paper and get the next grant corrals scientists into overly-specific, limited fields of view of the whole system they’re studying. As a result, Seung argued, “neuroscientists can be very short-sighted.” Seung’s own plan of attack is one he’s elaborated in his popular TED talk and documented thoroughly (and very accessibly) in his new book, Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are. On Monday, he reiterated this philosophy: the best way to understand perception, memory, and the basis of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and autism, Seung believes, is to study the brain at the level of the synapse—to trace all the connections between all the neurons in a brain. By generating a map of the whole system, we may be able to finally see engrams for memories and perceptions, as well as what might be going wrong with these networks in the aforementioned disorders, perhaps due to various problems in the ways neurons are wired up, which Seung calls “connectopathies.”

So where’s the debate? Movshon made his position clear: “I’m not going argue against the acquisition of information. I just don’t think the connectome is the way to do it.”

Movshon then presented some of his concerns about Seung’s connectomics. Among them:

  • There is a scale mismatch between the microscale field of view that tracing a connectome gives you (you’re looking at connections between cells of one specific organism) and the mesoscale understanding that Movshon argues is what’s really needed to understand the big questions (the mesoscale being statistical probabilities of wiring and activity common to the different brains of individuals).
  • The relationship between the computations carried out by a brain and the substrates of those computations remains elusive. In other words, even if we can see the connections between all the neurons in a brain (the substrate), how can we be sure that we’ll then make the leap to understanding how those connections give rise to a perception or memory (the computation)? Movshon brought up work done by Todd Sacktor that suggests there may be molecular switches within neurons and at the synapse that play a major role in the maintenance of memories. Movshon argued that connectomics would not show us the potentially crucial molecular mechanisms such as those studied by Sacktor (for more on that work, here’s an interview I did with Sacktor on a past edition of our podcast).

With their differences stated, some of the most intriguing moments of the evening arrived nearer to the end of the debate. Krulwich turned to Movshon and posed an important question: if you don’t want to map the connectome, how are you going to understand the brain?

Movshon responded by reminding the audience that “neuroscience is a cottage industry,” meaning the study of the brain has traditionally been carried out by many individual labs focusing on different parts of the whole, communicating their results to the scientific journals for circulation to the other cottages. In this philosophy, which Movshon believes is still the best way forward for the field, a better understanding of the whole brain and the answers to the big questions of perception, memory, and disorder will emerge from a better and better understanding of all the parts– as carried out by the localized cottage industries– and eventually consensus will emerge about the whole.

Seung’s approach is one injected with a bit more grandeur—and Movshon pointed out that “The problem of grandeur in neuroscience is one we’re all concerned about.” Connectomics is a large-scale undertaking that, a bit like large-scale brain simulation projects, demands rapid, parallel improvements in computer technology. Connectomics does not follow the research traditions of the cottage industry that Movshon represented in the debate—though the questions connectomics could answer are indeed big ones, no one can be totally sure yet exactly how those questions will be answered, or when. It’s a very different research approach than, say, studying fear response in the mouse brain for one’s entire lifetime.

The discussion of grandeur in neuroscience inevitably led to a briefly contentious back-and-forth about Henry Markram’s Blue Brain Project. When Movshon brought up Blue Brain and seemed to suggest a parallel between Seung and Markram, arguing that what we really need are more “guided, more focused, and more hypothesis-drive projects,” Seung pounced on the chance to distinguish the aims of his work from those of Blue Brain. While Markram famously declared in 2009 that he would have a full human brain simulation completed within ten years, Seung takes a somewhat humbler approach to his work: “Hey, I just want to map some connections,” he joked, draining the tension out of the hall with a good laugh. Indeed, Seung is hoping that in his lifetime he can map a mere cubic millimeter of mouse brain—just that, he said, would be a big step forward for the field.

Though there was no blood spilled in the end, one can hope that this “brain brawl” will be the start of more such public discussions of neuroscience’s direction and goals in the 21st century. The difference of approach between Movshon’s cottage industry and Seung’s connectomics is not necessarily one of ambition but one of scale. Both scientists emerged as ambitious explorers using slightly different tools and drawing slightly different maps.

These questions of approach and scale may present more two-camp issues as fodder for future debates (it could also be interesting to see such a debate unfold in more of an Oxford-style, Intelligence Squared format). While the actual science happens in labs and is reported on in journals, at conferences, and eventually in the press, we rarely get to hear actual scientists talk to the public and to each other about why it is they are going about studying the brain in the way they’re studying it. One can only hope Monday evening was the first of many such synapses between the scientific community and the eager public.

The Sloan Film Summit

[ 0 ] October 30, 2011

Two things happened on the last Saturday in October.  The first snow of the season came.  That was the first thing that happened, and unfortunate too, because there’s a leak in the boiler in my building, so gas doesn’t have the necessary pressure to make it up five flights of pre-war pipes.  At least that’s what the super told me in Spanish while we stood in the clouded basement, two men sharing in the sacred ritual of the steam (albeit in an accidental sauna).  But never mind that, because there was the second thing: later that day I attended my first summit, a meeting of important people, for film and science.  When I was invited all I could conjure was Camp David and G-8—20, but, to my knowledge, there were no heads of state there at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

Every 3 years The Sloan Film Summit gathers filmmakers from around the world to privately discuss the eco political future of our planet . . . wait . . . !  what I mean to say is they’ve all received financial grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the creation of science-themed narratives for the lay public.  Directors who have previously participated in this program include Warner Herzog, Darren Aranofsky, and Julian Schnabel.  Presented by the Tribeca Film Institute, there were 70 attendees this year, filmmakers with projects at various developmental stages.

I saw a staged reading of seven screenplay excerpts, ranging from the historical to the hysterical.  Or both, in the cases of Noah Miller’s Project Alpha—about a 1979 parapsychology study featuring two full-of-shit teenage subjects—and Matthew Evans’ The Wizard of Sussex—about Charles Dawson and the “missing link” hoax of 1912.  The staged reading itself is the real transitional form, a display of work on the way from page to screen.  It was cool to be able to observe these midway moments in the development of films.

Next was a delightful panel—”From Science to Fiction”—featuring scientists Dr. Janna Levin and Dr. Stuart Firestein alongside three filmmakers.  I found out that after graduate students show professors their data, the professor will often say “So what’s the story here?”  Results are even re-organized superficially for the sake of making sense, at which point scientists can realize that they’re “missing a scene,” maybe, and so they go back and conduct another experiment.  Sounds familiar, because scientists and artists are both creative problem-solvers.  Their methods may differ, but any human being striving for discovery, striving for anything, has inherent drama.  It’s the job of Sloan grantees to erase, hover over, or fancy-foot across and back from whatever arbitrary lines might separate an audience from material.

Now for a true story of my own, one funny to me: I am sitting in the hospitality room at the summit drinking straight half-and-half that’s supposed to be for coffee, when in comes a caravan of caterers each wearing one latex glove and holding up a tray of assorted chocolate cookies as though they’re grapes for Cleopatra.  Milk, then cookies?  A formal logical fallacy I recognize as “affirming the consequent,” necessarily false.  I’m a little giddy because logic seems to have been trumped, and so I say to one caterer “Thanks dude!  You baked all of those cookies yourself?” and he looked right at me and gave me just the answer, nothing more: “No, I didn’t.”  I read his face, it was like the face of a lay man reading to a dense scientific abstract.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is not dedicated to studying the phenomenon of why everyone doesn’t always laugh at every single one of my jokes.  The Sloan Foundation—through it’s Program for Public Understanding of Science and Technology—is dedicated to educating and engaging the public with science-themed books, radio, public and commercial television and film, theater, the Internet, and new media.  They’re distributing $10 million this year through all phases of the creative process, from commission to distribution.  I had the pleasure of chatting with Doron Weber, who runs the program, and he told me that in his 15 years he has seen science distilled more-and-more successfully into the mainstream.  There are 4 Sloan-supported feature films being released, and many more coming down the pipe.

Which leads me to a serious question: Would the Sloan Foundation pay for space heaters in my apartment, if I called them spacetime thermodynamos and wrote a story about it?  Because I’m working on it, in layers.

Bluebrain | Year Two

[ 17 ] August 25, 2011

We are proud to present the Year Two update to director Noah Hutton’s 10-year film-in-the-making that will chronicle the progress of The Blue Brain Project, Henry Markram’s attempt to reverse-engineer the brain, culminating in a documentary feature in 2020. If you haven’t seen Year One, you can watch that here. Enjoy the piece and let us know what you think.

The film is being produced by Noah Hutton’s production company, Couple 3.

A Public Coversation about Morality and the Brain

[ 3 ] April 8, 2011

Patricia Churchland

It had been some time since I had sat in a university lecture hall.  But on March 30, a special event brought me to historic Havemeyer at Columbia University.  The topic: morality and the brain.  Patricia Churchland, whose research focuses on the interface between philosophy and neuroscience, offered answers to such unanswerable questions such as Can science tell us right from wrong? and Where do values come from? Dr. Churchland’s compelling and scrupulous theory — which takes into account evolutionary, genetic, neuroendocrinological, and behavioral evidence — appears in her new book, Braintrust (Princeton University Press).  An in-depth review of her argument will appear here at The Beautiful Brain soon.  Suffice it to say that it had also been some time since I had taken so many notes.

The greatly successful night was organized and sponsored by NeuWrite, a group of writers and scientists dedicated to the public dissemination of science, with support from the Dana Foundation.  Dr. Churchland’s presentation was followed by a dialogue with City University of New York philosopher Jesse Prinz, whose theoretical thinking is also tied to scientific study.  Churchland and Prinz might be called neurophilosophers, after Churchland’s 1989 book Neurophilosophy (The MIT Press).  These are the rare responsible intellectuals who will always have me happily stuck to my seat.

Life is a Dream

[ 4 ] March 25, 2011

Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Dreams are seemingly all anybody talks about in the Spanish Golden Age drama La vide es sueño (Life is a Dream).  In that classic by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the crown prince of Poland — Segismundo — has been imprisoned by his father since birth because of a prophecy: Segismundo will be a cruel king.  But his father — King Basilio — wants to know whether or not his son is in fact cruel.  So Segismundo — now a man — is drugged, taken to the palace, and given the throne.  After waking up in power, he attempts to rape a woman, fights her father, and engages a duke in a duel.  A poor servant who points out the faults in Segismundo’s behavior is promptly thrown off of a balcony.  Now sure of the prophecy, King Basilio drugs his son again and returns him to captivity, where confused Segismundo wonders about reality:

What is life? A frenzy.

What is life?  An illusion,

a shadow, a fiction,

and the greatest good is mean:
for all life is a dream,

and dreams themselves are only dreams.

This is part of the most famous monologue in the play and whence its title comes. But after attending the March 20 Brainwave event with Debra Winger and Dr. Robert Stickgold, I re-discovered a brilliant speech by Clotaldo, the guard of Segismundo — and thought about it in the context of modern science:

But as they say dreams are rough copies of the waking soul

Yet uncorrected of the higher Will,

So that men sometimes in their dreams confess

An unsuspected, or forgotten, self;

One must beware to check — ay, if  one may,

Stifle ere born, such passion in ourselves

As makes, we see, such havoc with our sleep,

And ill reacts upon the waking day,

And, by the bye, for one test, Segismund,

Between such swearable realities —

Since Dreaming, Madness, Passion, are akin

In missing each that salutary rein

Of reason, and the guiding will of men.

Preeminent sleep researcher Dr. Stickgold — of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital — mentioned a fascinating finding: the prefrontal cortex, thought to be the throne of “executive function” — is particularly sensitive to sleep.  Its deactivation is responsible for the bizarreness of dreams.  Indeed, Clotaldo’s observation — philosophical in nature — is essentially the hypothesis that has been proven by sleep researchers (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2002).  Great minds think alike.

Next, Clotaldo describes the influence that dreams can have on waking life.  In a TedxRiverCity talk, Dr. Stickgold described an experiment by his student Erin Wamsley that showed that sleeping — and more specifically dreaming — improved performance on a task.  Subjects were required to navigate a 3-D maze.  In between trials, half of the subjects took 90-minute naps and half did not.  The nappers were on average one minute faster than non-nappers.  But the coolest finding was that the performance of the nappers who dreamed improved ten times.  It turns out that even off-topic dreams help.  (“A brief nap is beneficial for human route learning,” in press.)  The brain does not rest while the body does; in fact, the whole brain is busy processing information on multiple levels.  As Clotaldo notices, sleeping and waking are not strictly separate.  He does suggest that we should do our best to make them so, however.

Illustration by Jeremy Finch

Finally, Clotaldo draws a parallel between dreaming and two other states: madness and passion.  They are all born from a measure of freedom from the mainly rational self, which makes sure to say safe in order to survive in the world.  During the talk, Ms. Winger — Academy-Award nominated actress, author of the memoir/meditation Undiscovered, and mother of two sons — articulated her experience in the fluid continuum of dreaming and waking, and her frustration with quotidian concerns that keep her from that which is most deep and wonderful.  But all of the worlds — dreaming, and perhaps madness and passion too — are perpetually present.   Dreams do not “turn off,” Ms. Winger noted; the key is to access them while awake.  We might call that creativity.  Indeed, another finding related in the TedxRiverCity video showed that people who slept were two-and-a-half times more likely to perceive an underlying pattern in a memorized list of numbers.  Dr. Stickgold called this a “creative intrusion.”  He has said that he believes the purpose of dreams could be to integrate old and new memories and to imagine possible futures.  Is that not what an artist does?  And so we might add Creativity to Clotaldo’s list — with Madness, Passion, and, of course, Dreaming — of somewhat liberated mind-states.  Not intrusion, of course, but inspiration.  Pedro Calderón de la Barca must have known this.  You can read what his brain produced.

When they find out about their captive prince, the people of Poland liberate Segismundo and he becomes the head of a rebel force.  But he is reluctant to believe what is happening to him is real; he expects to again wake up from this dream of power.   Segismundo frees Clotaldo — who had tried to warm him about himself during the first kingship experiment— and acknowledges the importance of restraint.  Segismundo defeats his father, but mercifully lets him live.  He has a chance to satisfy his lust with the same woman, but does not.  Instead, he selflessly encourages the same dueling duke to marry her.  In the end, Segismundo becomes an enlightened king, devoted to acting well and doing good deeds.  All because of his powerful insight: life is a dream.  How fittingly Buddhist!

Brainwave 2011: Ride the Wave

[ 0 ] March 8, 2011

Brainwave 2011 | Illustration by Jeremy Finch

Shhh!  Listen.  Do you hear that?  That’s right ladies and gentlemen, the most enlightening conversation series in New York City is back.  Brainwave 2011!  At The Rubin Museum of Art.  The theme of this season is . . . DREAMS!

The first event that I had the pleasure of attending was “Who Dreamed the First Dream” (March 6), featuring the Israeli writer Meir Shalev and the American Museum of Natural History anthropologist Serinity Young.  Mr. Shalev—who writes a weekly column for the newspaper Yediot Ahronot—is the author of several fiction (A Pigeon and A Boy, 2006), non-fiction (In the Beginnings: Firsts in the Bible, 2011), and children’s books (My Father Always Embarrasses Me, 1988).  Dr. Young received a PhD in Comparative Religion and has edited and herself authored books, most notably Dreaming in the Lotus (1999), an analysis of the role of dreams in Buddhism, and the forthcoming Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative, Ritual, and Iconography, which sounds pretty hot.

Dr. Young began by recounting the Buddhist myth of the dream of Queen Maya.  Queen Maya, the mother of the Buddha, dreamed that her womb was touched from the right side by a white elephant.  Wise men then concluded that Queen Maya would give birth to the Buddha.  Mr. Shalev remarked that this is very sexual.  The crowd laughed; he laughed too, but was at the same time quite serious.  “We cannot ignore the trunkiness of the trunk,” he reminded.  Mr. Shalev is also a wise man, and a gifted storyteller.  During his time onstage Mr. Shalev recounted his own childhood dreams and offered anecdotes about his father, which thoroughly delighted the audience.  In anticipation of Mr. Shalev’s talk, I was reading one of his books—The Blue Mountain (2002)—and it was delightful too, but unfortunately I got into a disagreement with it.  One of those “it’s not you it’s me” situations.  We’ll see what happens.  (If anyone is reading/has read the book and would like to council me through my relationship, feel free to get in touch.)

During the question-and-answer portion of the event, someone asked Mr. Shalev “Who is your favorite Bible character?”  Mr. Shalev said Jacob, because of the extreme poles—romantic and practical—that exist within his character.  For example, when Jacob first meets his wife-to-(eventually)-be Rachel, he notices that she is beautiful, and also that her family has a nice flock of sheep.  A good match, then, in two regards.  Mr. Shalev then remembered Paltiel, an even-less-than-minor character who appears for a few lines in the book of 2 Samuel.  We’re talking one-line-minor.  After overcoming the House of Saul, King David insists upon having Saul’s daughter Michal for a wife.  And so she was taken from her husband—Paltiel—who “went with her, weeping as he went, and followed her to Bahurim.  Then said Abner unto him, ‘Go, return’ and he returned’” (2Samuel3:16).  Devotion, loss.  There is a whole novel right there, as Mr. Shalev noted.  The Bible is filled with such unnoticed but necessary characters, which give the work the thorough richness that makes great literature great, as in for example The Iliad, War and Peace, The Inferno, Don Quixote, or Remembrance of Things Past.  Maybe the most telling thing about a person is how he treats his minor characters.  In art and in life.

March 6, 2011.  Brainwave.  I heard Mr. Meir Shalev.  To this point, he appears in maybe one line in the book of my life, if that were to exist.  He is a minor character.  And I am so grateful that I encountered him.  And I am grateful for Brainwave.  For its enrichment.

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