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Interview: Idan Segev

[ 7 ] July 11, 2013

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.

Interview: Julia Buntaine

[ 62 ] July 10, 2013

Julia Buntaine

Julia Buntaine‘s artwork provides conceptual footholds for issues in neuroscience: from brain imaging, to structural organization and functional pathways, her exploration of the mind is simultaneously playful and deeply intelligent. Born in Massachusetts, Buntaine attained her BA from Hampshire College, her post-baccalaureate certificate from Maryland Institute College of Art, and studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Buntaine has been featured in a variety of exhibitions at Hampshire College, MICA and SVA, has a permanent outdoor work on the grounds of Hampshire, a work in the Johns Hopkins University’s private collection, and two works in Subjective Resonance Imaging, The Beautiful Brain’s recent group gallery show organized in collaboration with the Neuro Bureau as part of the 2013 Human Brain Mapping Conference in Seattle. The artist is currently working and living in New York City.

NH: I’m interested in when you became interested in neuroscience. When did that happen, and what did it?

JB: For as long as I can remember I have been interested in being an artist. I attended an arts high school, and when I wasn’t making art I was exploring abandoned mental hospitals with a group of friends. In wandering the derelict campuses of these outmoded institutions, I developed an interest in the history and mechanisms of mental illness. When I began at Hampshire College, I thought to take the biological approach to studying the mind, and realized very quickly I had found something that would rival my love for creating art. My interest in the psychology of mental illness was replaced with my fascination of the biology of the brain – thinking about the self as being a byproduct of actual physiological processes agreed with my sensibilities more than any other perspective had before. I took comfort in the solidity of the scientific facts. Neuroscience was not only answering my questions but enabling me to ask more, and by the end of college I was deep into the cellular and molecular studies of the brain. It was also by the end of college that I combined my love for art and neuroscience by making neuroscience my artistic subject matter, which in turn gave my art practice a purpose I had felt was lacking previously.


“Empire State of Mind” by Julia Buntaine.

“Brodmann’s Subways”


NH: You have made pieces inspired by fMRI images, circuit diagrams, Brodmann’s maps, and specific anatomical structures. As a bio-artist, what do you hope that these pieces can communicate about the underlying theories, imaging techniques, or physical structures? More generally, how do you view the role of the artist in the relationship between the public and the scientist?

JB: I believe the discoveries of biology, among other sciences, can and should be shared through the medium of art. Art inherently demands subjective judgment and interpretation, and unlike reading articles or looking at data charts, concepts embodied in art are understood without words. Many scientific topics often have the reputation of being too complex to understand, and in my work I hope to act as a sort of interpreter, to provide my audience an alternative way to understand the wonders of biology we have discovered in ourselves. There are many techniques to approach the relay of scientific information in a visual, creative manner, and I often end up mixing scientific imagery with more familiar forms to make the subject more reachable for the audience. In each work I always begin with a strong grounding in science and then depart into the world of aesthetics as I manipulate the idea through the use of scale, metaphor, material and form.

NH: I am curious about how your work and your mind have co-evolved since you became interested in neuroscience. Looking back on the pieces you’ve made so far, do they now serve as visual reference points for you, when you imagine the world between our ears, and the techniques we use to image it? Has the process of exploring these issues through your art evolved your understanding of the brain?

JB: Making my work has always aided in my understanding of the science behind it; in fact, it was through my academic pursuit of neuroscience that I had the idea to create art about biological topics in the first place. During my junior year at Hampshire I was taking a broader themed biology course and found myself making lots of flashcards about human physiology. I remember I was going over the way blood is pumped through the heart, drawing arrows through this valve and that, and then I picked up some pencils and started to color and shade the edges… and then it had been twenty minutes and I had not only a nice colored pencil drawing, but a complete understanding, an actual feel for the movement of blood through the heart. Soon after I began to experiment with brain based sculptures, and knew I had found not only my best method of studying, but a subject matter I felt that mattered and truly cared about. Still now, in the way I could “feel” the path of blood through the heart because I had drawn it, I feel that I understand, in a bodily way, each biological subject of my works. This other type of understanding, beyond the scientific and diagrammatic, is the experience I strive to give my viewers.

NH: What is your attitude towards direct collaborations between artists and scientists? What do each have the potential to learn from the other, and what results can come out of it?

JB: As a science-based artist, I am not terribly interested in the idea of collaboration with science. Conceptually, I find there is an inherent issue in the idea of a melding between the two, which has to do with the foundations and methodologies of each given discipline. Say a scientist and an artist do truly collaborate… The bedrock of scientific discovery is the rule laden methodical testing of historically embedded hypotheses, and when scientific breakthroughs occur, it is by individuals who so completely understand the subject matter as to be able to see beyond its current confinements. The bedrock of artistic creation is based solely on what is important to the artist at the time, be it art history, what colors she has on hand, what was in the morning paper, or the like. In a true collaboration, what would result could be never be considered science, but could be art (if the artist says it is). And with this conclusion we are at the one-way road running from science to art, the road that already underlies science-based art today.

That is not to say that science can’t gain anything from art. Specifically, art made about a particular scientific topic could give scientists a new way of explaining their work, much in the way that science journalists create metaphors to relay scientific findings to the public. Science-based artists create visual metaphors to do the same, and as an artist who makes such work I hope that I benefit science by such means.

NH: I understand that in addition to your artwork you are also in the process of launching a new science-based online art magazine. What is your hope with this project?

JB: In coming into my own as an artist, understanding my place in the art world and facing my unique, subject matter-based challenges, I have kept a running list of artists I know about or meet who have similar experiences to me because of their scientific subject matter. Although it is true that many artists have been interested in science every now and then, it has only been for about the past two decades or so that science has been treated as a serious, lifelong subject matter for artists. In my search for compatriots, I found that most contemporary artists I’ve been following are based in London or Berlin, which struck me as odd given that the United States is not only home to the art capitol of the world, but to many other artistically important cities including Miami, Chicago and San Francisco. I realized that here, maybe there is not a lack of science-based artists, only a lack of infrastructure to support us. In my publication SciArt in America – set to launch late summer 2013 – I am going to feature artists and post opportunities and SciArt news within the States, have a place to discuss our common issues, and create the potential for connections among science-based artists, in an attempt to begin forming a real science-based art community.

Visit the artist’s website for more.


Artists and Scientists in Dialogue at the Rubin Museum of Art

[ 0 ] February 16, 2013

The sixth annual Brainwave series kicked off on February 6 at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, and will run through April.

François Girard and Carl Schoonover at Brainwave. (Photo: Michael Palma for RMA)

Just before neuroscientist Carl Schoonover and director François Girard took the stage last Wednesday at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City for a one-hour public dialogue, series curator Tim McHenry told the crowd that the two had never met before. A murmor of surprised excitement spread through the Rubin’s basement auditorium– we were about to witness that first meeting of minds, and the respective practices of art and science carried within them (opera and film in Girard’s case and neuroscience in Schoonover’s, who had just handed in his doctoral thesis at Columbia University, and last year published his first book, Portraits of the Mind).

What ensued was somewhat like two masterful musicians taking the stage to improvise a set: first there was a warm up period, as the two got to know each other, tested the waters and lobbed some preliminary questions back and forth; then the interplay of ideas began to soar, giving the assembled audience a dialogue that seemed to be more than the sum of its parts.

Girard was in town to direct Parsifal at the Met Opera. Schoonover, bring an opera enthusiast himself, was curious to explore the question of reality, in everyday existence and in created worlds, especially Wagnerian ones. This iteration of the Brainwave series bears the general theme of “illusion,” so starting with questions of reality in the imagined worlds of opera seemed appropriate.

“Wagner’s worlds were not literal, they weren’t real in the sense that you thought they happened,” Schoonover said to Girard. “Would you argue that those worlds hold as much sway in your life, in the way you make decisions in the world, as say, getting kicked in the toe? Do they have the same immediacy in your life?”

Girard replied: “All I’m doing is addressing brains. Systems of neurons and emotions. Whether that is real or not… if you feel these emotions, they are real.”

The discussion began to heat up, as some of the best Brainwave events at the Rubin often do.

Schoonover admitted that there are some limits in exploring subjective emotional experience through current scientific tehniques. Speaking to Girard, he said, “I feel that you, and artists in general, are way ahead of the scientists, in that you have figured out ways to create these images, create these feelings. And the science is very impoverished right now, partly for technical reasons. If you want to study the human brain while it’s doing stuff, you have to put it in this fMRI machine. Try to experience the bliss of Parsifal inside there, after someone injects a tracer into your arm.”

Girard spoke about how he engages audiences in his work– the need to build a rich emotional backstory to a character, and then to put a lid on it, restraining performances at every step, asking the viewer to fill in suggested emotions that the characters have come very close to evoking, but have held back from stating obviously, leaving enough room for us to bring our own projections to the viewing experience. Girard’s most penetrating observations came near to the end of the talk: “The full reality of a piece of art is in the blanks,” he observed. “The writer will give you fragments of reality. What a film is really about is the reconstruction of it in the mind of the audience.”

Schoonover was sharp with his questions and offerings from the realm of neuroscience, quick to suggest a relevant insight to the discussion at hand, such as mirror neurons (though he was careful to offer plenty of disclaimers about the limited explanatory reach of such lines of research), and Girard displayed a depth of philosophical consideration of his work, and a genuine interest in what the science can say about perception and emotion. The dialogue proved to be an auspicious start to this year’s series at the Rubin.

Upcoming Brainwave events:

Wed, Feb 27
7:00 p.m.
$20 | Buy Tickets
The Screenwriter | Learn More
Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar) + neurobiologist Tom Carew
Sat, Mar 2
3:00 p.m.
$20 | Buy Tickets
The Photographer | Learn More
Mary Ellen Mark + neuropsychologist Daniel L. Schacter
Sun, Mar 3
6:00 p.m.
$25 | Buy Tickets
The New Yorker Cartoonists | Learn More
David Sipress, Paul Noth, Zachary Kanin + neuroscientist Richard Restak
Wed, Mar 6
7:00 p.m.

$35 | SOLD OUT
The Humorist | Learn More
Fran Lebowitz + experimental psychologist Steven Pinker
Sun, Mar 17
6:00 p.m.
$80 | Buy Tickets
The Memorist (The Memory Palace) | Learn More
Nelson Dellis + neuropsychologist Lila Davachi
Wed, Mar 20
7:00 p.m.
$80 | Buy Tickets
The Memorist (The Memory Palace) | Learn More
Nelson Dellis + neuropsychologist Todd Gureckis
Wed, Apr 3
7:00 p.m.
$35 | Buy Tickets
The Virtuoso | Learn More
Zakir Hussain + neuroscientist Seth Horowitz
Sunday, Apr 7
6:00 p.m.
$20 | Buy Tickets
The Lighting Designer | Learn More
Jules Fisher + neuroscientist Margaret Livingstone
Wed, Apr 10
7 p.m.
$20 | Buy Tickets
The Spice Master Learn More
Lior Lev Sercarz + neuroscientist Donald A. Wilson
Wed, Apr 17
7:00 p.m.
$20 | Buy Tickets
The Chef | Learn More
Wylie Dufresne of WD-50
Sat, Apr 20
3:00 p.m.
$20 | Buy Tickets
The Congressman | Learn More
Tim Ryan + psychologist Tracy Dennis, after a screening of Changing Minds at Concord High School
Fri, Apr 26
7:00 p.m.
$25 | Buy Tickets
The Architect | Learn More
Bjarke Ingels + neuroscientist Tom Albright

The Creativity of Chess: a Conversation with Elizabeth Spiegel

[ 6 ] October 17, 2012

One of the thrills of a good documentary film is what it explores above and beyond the explicit subject at hand: doses of philosophy, delightful idiosyncrasies, a person taking us to an unexpected place through their words or actions.

Elizabeth Spiegel

I had that experience– the thrill of the above and beyond– when I encountered the contagious enthusiasm of Elizabeth Spiegel, one of the subjects in Brooklyn Castle, a new documentary film opening this weekend in Manhattan (and elsewhere in subsequent weeks). The film tells the story of of five stellar chess players at I.S. 318, a below-the-poverty-line junior high school in Brooklyn that has won more national championships in chess than any other in the country (here’s the trailer). That success is furthered day after day by Spiegel, I.S. 318’s indefatigable resident chess teacher, who is also featured in a chapter of the new book How Children Succeed. In Brooklyn Castle, her philosophical insight into the teachings of the game and her unflinching attention to helping her students improve are steady forces at the heart of the film.

I sat down with Elizabeth Spiegel to talk about the educational value and creativity inherent in the game of chess.

NH: In the film you talk about chess as a game of near-infinite possibilities. How do you help students feel sure of themselves, able to make calculations, in this realm of infinite possibilities?

ES: In chess, there’s this idea of forcing moves. You can force moves with checks, captures, and attacks on valuable pieces, like an attack on the Queen. If you take something, either they’re going to take you back, or you’re going to be ahead by a piece.  So some things you can calculate—you’re going to go here, and he’s going to do one of these five things. And then I’m going to go here, and he has these choices. That’s a process that you build up—it’s a skill like being able to lift weights.

You know, in math, there’s always an answer. But in chess, it’s really true that the answer might be twenty-three moves down the road, so that even if I am an expert chess teacher and I come to it with knowledge, there’s no answer key I can go and look at and be able to tell them. To some extent, computers have reduced that— they’ve sucked a bit of the mystery and the unknowable nature out of chess. But it’s still there. I think it’s great for kids to know there aren’t clear-cut answers always. That even when you get very good at something, things aren’t so simple.

NH: What is one way that chess asks you to use your mind in a way you don’t usually use it, or to an extent you don’t usually use it?

ES: I think there are lots of great thinking habits that chess demands from kids. One is this practice of double-checking yourself relentlessly. That you can play really well for fourty moves, and then you make one miscalculation, and your opponent sees it, and you lose. People don’t often pick their own ideas to shreds, but chess forces you to do that.

NH: So a level of self-awareness?

ES: Yeah, a level of negative thinking, of finding the problems in your thoughts—and not being like, “Oh, I have a great idea, I’m fantastic.” You know, you have an idea, and you’re excited about it, and then you go and try to find every possible thing that might be wrong with it, and make sure it’s really correct. I think that’s a hard thing to teach kids, and I think chess does it really well.

I think it also teaches a certain resilience. No matter how good you get as a chess player, you’re going to get in bad positions. And you have to deal with them, you can’t just give up when you have them. So you have to be optimistic about the position itself and find what goodness there is in it, even when it’s unpleasant to play it and you know that you’re losing in it and you know that it’s your fault that you’re losing in it.

We do some theoretical learning too, and the students have to memorize a certain amount. I have a big library of chess books, and the kids will borrow them and read them. And it’s great, because you learn an opening and it sort of provides a framework for you to be creative—like it provides a structure where you have certain ideas, and you have to figure out a different context in which you can apply them. For a lot of kids I think theoretical and academic stuff can seem really irrelevant to their learning experience. But for a lot of the kids I teach I think chess makes memorizing something and learning what other scholars have done to be a very relevant thing—they know that it will help them win, so they’re willing to make the effort to memorize the variations and remember the ideas. There’s a moment where your creativity and the theoretical knowledge meet, and that’s how they get really good.

NH: So about that— what exactly is creativity in chess? For a chess player, what is the optimal balance of your own creativity and the inherited theory about what other players have done?

ES: One of the things you’re doing when you have a position in chess is you’re thinking, “Where do I want to go from here, and what do I want to accomplish?” In some openings, there are a lot of preset ideas: the themes that come out of the way the pieces are arranged, or the way the pawn structure is shaped. But a lot of the ideas are dependent on very tiny details—one pawn is in a different place, and it affects what is going to work. Creativity in chess is being able to come up with lots of these ideas—to have lots of things going on in your mind that you want to do— to be able to take all the ideas, and to see how one opening might apply in a slightly different position—that’s what I see as creativity in chess.

Elizabeth Spiegel leads a class.NH: You mentioned that there is a lot of written theory about openings in chess. Beyond the opening, does the game get more open and creative as it goes on?

ES: Yeah, because it gets more diverse as it goes on. Everyone starts from the same position, so there are maybe five good first moves. In some games, there might be theory through move thirty. But the further you get from the starting position, the more on your own you are.

And then, you know, it’s funny—when it gets to the end game, it also gets to be more about accuracy and less about creativity. When there are fewer pieces on the board, it’s more important to be right—it’s more calculable. Chess with less than five or six pieces is solved, and there’s a right answer. So when you’re on move thirty-five, it’s about what ideas you can find; when you’re on move sixty, there are only five ideas left, and you’ve calculated what the end result of each of them is.

NH: In the film you talk about how players experience sudden leaps in ability. As an expert player yourself, do you remember experiencing your own leaps in ability? How did it feel?

ES: It’s a bit like when you’re fit and you go running, and you feel powerful. That’s the only feeling I can compare it to. You feel more capable.

NH: What about now—what’s it like to see those leaps in ability from the point of view of teaching?

ES: You can’t give up on kids: they’ll be terrible for a long time, and then all of sudden they’ll be good. And they always do get good, if they stick with it. I have a kid right now who lost his first twenty-one straight games—they were terrible games, week after week. It took him two years, but last year he won first place in his section of nationals. He won it through sheer doggedness—he was losing every game, and he’s just such a hard worker, and things finally clicked. Learning doesn’t happen in a smooth way. People really do wake up one day and they’re better, and it doesn’t necessarily have a linear relationship to yesterday.

NH: You’re featured in a chapter the new book How Children Succeed, where you’re working with a student who has just lost an important game at a tournament (read the excerpt here). Your approach there seems particularly hard-nosed compared to the way we see you in the film. How do you balance these different teaching methods?

ES: I feel like in the book I’m a very different person than I am in the movie.

NH: How so?

ES: Anytime you’re a character in anybody else’s portrayal of you, you’re a character for a reason, and there’s a narrative and a point behind you. I think that they’re both absolutely true, but I think that the film is trying to portray me as the sensitive and encouraging teacher, and Paul is trying to portray me as the teacher with high expectations that pushes kids. I think the larger thing is that different kids need different things from teachers.

NH: Do you have a way you approach winning all the time, or do you take it case by case?

ES: Kids need less from you when they win. But we always go over the game. The kids write down all their moves, and we go over it together.

Winning is useful educationally for two reasons: one is that kids are less emotionally upset when they’ve won, so they’re more willing to accept that they made mistakes. Sometimes when you lose you just don’t want to face it right then. I try to connect their winning to something that I want them to do, and then hopefully they associate the winning with that behavior you’re encouraging.

NH: In cognitive science we hear a lot about top-down versus bottom-up thinking—bottom-up being our incoming sensory streams about the world around us, and top-down being the weight of expectations, memory, and emotional experience we bring to every situation. It seems chess might be an interesting meeting point of those bottom-up and top-down systems—how does a player balance their moment-to-moment reactions to each position they’re in with all the experience and predictions they have inside them?

ES: I think openings are related to that question. One of the reasons we teach openings is so that the kids have a similar pawn structure every game. They know the qualities of the pawn structures, and they’ve had experience in those positions that they can draw on to make decisions. Their history can help them.

NH: From watching the film, I get the sense you really value your time with each student, and you take their intellectual work seriously. Why is that important to you?

ES: When you play chess, and you put all your effort into trying to win, and you know, chess is so very complicated—it’s helpful to sit down with a teacher and have them take your thoughts seriously, to help you unpack the game, so that you understand why you lost and where it came from. It’s a bit like editing someone’s writing—you go through it word by word and you ask them, is this exactly what you want to say? Is there a better way to put it? I think that’s how people get better at things. I think there’s not a lot of room for that in most classrooms, where you see the kids for 45 minutes and there are 30 of them.

You know—you’ve lost, and you’re crying—and what chess teaches is that understanding what just happened does make it easier.  And I think that’s an important thing for them to understand in life, as well. Nothing is really so terrible once you figure it out—and that working through something does make it better.

You can see Elizabeth Spiegel in action in the new documentary Brooklyn Castle, opening on Friday, October 19th, at the Landmark Sunshine Theater in Manhattan.

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.

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