What are the Key Questions the Kavli Neuroscience Prize Winners Would Now Like to Address?

See full interviews with Cornelia Bargmann, Winfried Denk, and Ann Graybiel in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (October 2012). 

Cornelia Bargmann (Rockefeller University)

We’re asking whether there might be a logic underlying the incredible diversity of animal behaviours, perhaps at the level of genes and circuits. For example, are there conserved biological systems that organize higher-order behaviours, by analogy to the biological conservation that applies to molecular and cellular processes? Do internal states or emotions like hunger, fear or arousal have a straightforward biological basis in neuroanatomy and neurochemistry, or are they the result of ad hoc assemblies of multiple components? How do new behaviours evolve? Are there certain genes and mechanisms that are predisposed to generate new behavioural variations and, if so, how do they work?

Winfried Denk (Max Planck Institute for Medical Research)

Again, my interest lies in the development of tools that I perceive as being useful for a whole range of questions in neurobiology. Knowing the wiring diagram is ultimately necessary, although not necessarily sufficient, for all of systems (circuit?) neuroscience. More specifically, there are things to finish in the retina, and my laboratory is currently working to finish an inner-plexiform connectome. Then it’s on towards developing a whole-mouse-brain microtome.

Ann Graybiel (MIT)

Thanks to the ingenuity of people inventing new methods for working on the brain, we are in the midst of a revolution in which we have the chance to discover functional circuits in the brain and how they relate to behaviour, and to examine the dynamics of neural signalling at different time scales and in different frequency domains. In the field of basal ganglia research, we are just at the beginning of this adventure; for us, understanding the interactions of these deep-forebrain systems with the neocortex and with other functional systems is a primary goal. There are also many questions about the relationship between neural signalling and behaviour, not the least being the state changes that somehow occur between our doing things with conscious intent and doing things nearly automatically. Of course, in our specific workspace, we would like to understand the compartmental architecture of the striatum in functional terms. We have been guessing for a long time!


3×5: Culture, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry Weekly Roundup: Empathy (August 6)

UPDATE: New links from Lori Hogenkamp via Facebook at end of post.

Brief note: I’ve come to realize that empathy (and its putative component processes – mirror neuron networks, affect sharing, mentalizing) brings out almost everything that’s problematic in social neuroscience research: problems of a conceptually vague cover term, problems with extrapolating from animal models (e.g., monkeys don’t imitate); problems with fMRI/ROI, problems with science writing for the public (e.g., this publisher blurb for Marco Iacoboni’s Mirroring People: “From imitation to morality, from learning to addiction, from political affiliations to consumer choices, mirror neurons seem to have properties that are relevant to all these aspects of social cognition”), problems with a too-powerful metaphor (err, the mirror) that’s hard to repack in the box after that last quote :( problems with extrapolating in other ways (see Emily Willingham’s post on what she describes as the “no empathy in autism meme” – as Ian Hacking said, “The history of late 20th century medicine will … also [be] a history of advocacy groups”), etc., etc.

On second thought, there are many positive implications that hover over all this work – for theory of mind, radical embodied cognition, network science approaches to the brain’s structural and functional connectivity  . . .

Many thanks to the Neuroanthropology Interest Group on Facebook for suggestions and Center for Building a Culture of Empathy and Compassion for inspiration! 


1. “Empathy as cultural process: Insights from the cultural neuroscience of empathy” by Bobby Cheon, Vani Mathur, and Joan Chiao (WCPRR, 2010).

2. Via Eugene Raikhel (Neuroanthropology Interest Group): See the just-published special issue of “Science in Context” on “The Varieties of Empathy in Science, Art, and History.” It includes an article by Shaun Gallagher (“Empathy, Simulation, and Narrative“), one by Allan Young (“The Social Brain and the Myth of Empathy“) and a number of others.

3. Roundup on “Anthropology, Teaching, and Empathy” in early 2012 by Jason Antrosio of Anthropology Report and a related post by Rex on Savage Minds, “Empathy, or, seeing from within.”

4. Hollan, D. C., & Throop, C. J. (2011). The anthropology of empathy: Experiencing the lives of others in Pacific societies. New York: Berghahn.

5. Blog post by Emily Willingham (Dec 2011): “Autistic people: Insensitive to social reputation, sure, but what about empathy?” on the website Autism and Empathy.


1. Bernhardt, B. C., & Singer, T. (2012). The neural basis of empathy. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 35, 1–23.

2. Decety, J. Norman, G. J., Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). A neurobehavioral evolutionary perspective on the mechanisms underlying empathy. Progress in Neurobiology, 98(1), 38–48. See also, Decety, J. (2011b). The neuroevolution of empathyAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1231, 35–45.

3. Zaki, J., & Ochsner, K. N. (2012). The neuroscience of empathy: Progress, pitfalls and promiseNature Neuroscience: Focus on Social Neuroscience [Perspective], 15(5), 675–680.

4. Decety, J. (2011a). Dissecting the neural mechanisms mediating empathy. Emotion Review, 3,92–108. See also, Decety, J. (2010). To what extent is the experience of empathy mediated by shared neural circuits? Emotion Review, 2(3), 204–207.

5. “Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats” Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason. See also 2011 Science paper by same group.



1. Cheng, Y., Hung, A., & Decety, J. (2012). Dissociation between affective sharing and emotion understanding in juvenile psychopathsDevelopment and Psychopathology, 24, 623–636.

[From Abstract]. . . youth with HCU [high callous-unemotional traits] exhibit atypical neural dynamics of pain empathy processing in the early stage of affective arousal, which is coupled with their relative insensitivity to actual pain. Their capacity to understand intentionality, however, was not affected. Such uncoupling between affective arousal and emotion understanding may contribute to instigating aggressive behaviors in juvenile psychopaths.

[From the paper] It is  important that the affective arousal deficit . . . cannot be explained by a lack of sensorimotor resonance [i.e., mirror neurons], as measured by mu wave suppression [this was an ERP study], which was present in a ll participants. This finding indicates that affective arousal is not mediated by the mirror neuron system.

2. “Empathy and alterity in cultural psychiatry” by Laurence Kirmayer (Ethos, 2008).

3. “Empathy and otherness: Humanistic and phenomenological approaches to psychotherapy of severe mental illness” by Elizabeth Pienkos and Louis Sass (Pragmatic Case Studies in Psychotherapy, 2012).

4. Empathy in mental illness edited by Tom Farrow and Peter Woodruff (CUP, 2007).

5. “Zero degrees of empathy” by Simon Baron-Cohen, covering disorders of empathy (borderline personality disorder, psychopathy, narcissism) and genetic, endocrine, and social influences.


3×5: Culture, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry Weekly Roundup (July 30)


1. Ginger Campbell (Brain Science Podcast) interviews UC Berkeley biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon about his book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matterwhich was reviewed by Raymond Tallis is WSJ last November. But see also “Stolen Ideas? Or Great Minds Thinking Alike?” by Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which discusses the book’s overlap with works by Alicia Juarrero (Dynamics in Action) and (our favorite) Evan Thompson (Mind in Life). (The FPR interviewed Evan Thompson last year.)

2. Neuroanthropology’s Daniel Lende’s post “Inside the Minds of Mass Killers” is a must-read.

3. Another terrific post on Aurora, which Daniel’s links to, is philosopher Evan Selinger’s “The Philosophy of the Technology of the Gun,” which appeared in the Atlantic.

I think Daniel and Evan throw some much-need light on the social, political, and material environment (including cultural scripts and how technology, to use a thread-bare metaphor, “gets under the skin”) from which acts of violence emerge and, in addition,  the importance of not “lightly equat[ing] mental illness and violence.”

But a commentator (“N” – and I’m assuming “N” is the same author whose brilliant work is featured in a post by David Dobbs) questioned “the divide” Daniel seemed to be drawing “between the cultural & sociopolitical and ‘mental illness,'” as well as that between violence and certain forms of psychosis. A thoughtful back-and-forth with “N” and other commentators followed. I highly recommend reading the whole thing!

4. Speaking of Daniel, Neuroanthropology’s Facebook page is a lot of fun!

5. Somatosphere has a great summary by Dörte Bemme and Nicole D’Souza of a recent global mental health workshop and conference hosted by Laurence Kirmayer and McGill’s Division of Transcultural Psychiatry.

There seems to be a shift among this new generation of researchers (including the post’s authors) to move beyond “static dichotomies (north, south, west, HIC, LMIC, global, local)” and top-down or bottom-up approaches but I’m not sure to what, precisely, apart from recognizing “interesting frictions”?

One advance that has gotten less press is DSM-5’s recognition that mental health, like physical health, is a developmental process and exquisitely sensitive to the timing as well as the intensity of experiences and events. Another comes from recognition of the need for a developmentally oriented network of primary care at the community level that address biological, social, and environmental risk factors for mental as well as medical illnesses – infectious diseases, poverty, stress, migration. (See, e.g., Sunday’s NYT magazine article, “What Can Mississippi Learn from Iran?” re primary health care reform.)

[Dr. Aaron] Shirley [creator of HealthConnect, a model inspired by Iran’s primary health care systems] says he believes that the problems of the American poor — living conditions, deficient education, harmful behaviors and the lack of family support and access to healthful lifestyles — demand house calls. This approach was used by groups in Atlantic City and Camden, N.J., profiled by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker last year, which identified the worst offenders of emergency-room readmission and deployed social workers and nurses to figure out the myriad sources of ill health. What was clear above all else from Gawande’s account is that what these people needed was constant attention. Because one stumble — an unpaid electricity bill, for example — can lead to cascading health setbacks.


1. Great Book, Great Interview: Ginger Campbell interviews Olaf Sporns about Networks of the Brain (MIT, 2011).

2. John Hawks linked to a fascinating paper on his blog, “Evolutionary History and Adaptation from High-Coverge Whole-Genome Sequences of Diverse African Hunter Gatherers” by Lachance et al. in Cell., which points out high levels of genetic diversity within African hunter-gatherer populations.

To reconstruct modern human evolutionary history and identify loci that have shaped hunter-gatherer adaptation, we sequenced the whole genomes of five individuals in each of three different hunter-gatherer populations at >60× coverage: Pygmies from Cameroon and Khoesan-speaking Hadza and Sandawe from Tanzania. We identify 13.4 million variants, substantially increasing the set of known human variation. We found evidence of archaic introgression in all three populations, and the distribution of time to most recent common ancestors from these regions is similar to that observed for introgressed regions in Europeans. Additionally, we identify numerous loci that harbor signatures of local adaptation, including genes involved in immunity, metabolism, olfactory and taste perception, reproduction, and wound healing. Within the Pygmy population, we identify multiple highly differentiated loci that play a role in growth and anterior pituitary function and are associated with height.

3. Russell Fernald’s “Social Control of the Brain,” in latest Ann Rev of Neurosci using a fish model.

4. Latest SCAN: “The Association Between Financial Hardship and Amygdala and Hippocampal Volumes: Results from the PATH Through Life Project.

5. Finally, here is a link to the pdfof the 2012 Human Brain Project report because I’m obsessed with this image:

And, in my simple minded way, if we can do this, our collective experts can come up with a solution for Mississippi.


1. Rutgers press release dd. 7/19/12: Anxiety Disorders in Poor Mothers More Likely to be the Result of Poverty, not Mental Illness.

2. In the July 2012 issue of BJPsych, Psychotic symptoms in young people without psychotic illness: mechanisms and meaning by Graham Murray and Peter Jones.

Psychotic symptoms are common in the general population. There is evidence for common mechanisms underlying such symptoms in health and illness (such as the functional role of mesocorticostriatal circuitry in error-dependent learning) and differentiating factors (relating to non-psychotic features of psychotic illness and to social and emotional aspects of psychotic symptoms). Clinicians should be aware that psychotic symptoms in young people are more often associated with common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety than with severe psychotic illness.

3. Also in the same issue,, psychiatric neuroscientist Mary Phillips has an editorial on “Neuroimaging in Psychiatry: Bringing Neuroscience into Clinical Practice.”

4. Freedman et al’s “Treating a physician patient with psychosis,” Asian Journal of Psychiatry, June 2012 via @JonesNev

5. Also via Nev Jones (@JonesNev): “Voice Hearing and Pseudoseizures in a Maori Teenager: An Example of Mate Maori and Maori Traditional Healing” in Australas Psychiatry, 19 July 2012. See also “Maori Healers’ Views on Wellbeing: The Importance of Mind, Body, Spirit, Family and Land” in Social Science & Medicine (June 2010).


Objective: The aim of this paper is to describe a Māori traditional healing approach to assessment and treatment of distressing psychiatric symptoms in a young man.Method:We describe the case of a 17 year old Māori male with voice hearing and pseudoseizures and the assessment and intervention by one of the authors (WN). We report on the young man’s and his family’s experience of this treatment. We outline concepts from a Māori world view that illuminate an indigenous rationale for this approach. Results: A single session traditional Māori healing intervention was associated with immediate resolution of this young man’s psychiatric symptoms and restoration of his sense of wellbeing, despite cessation of antipsychotic treatment. He and his family felt satisfied with the cultural explanation about the origin of his distress, which was congruent with their world view. He remained well at follow-up one year later. Conclusions: Collaboration between psychiatrists and traditional Māori healing practitioners can enhance the mental health care of Māori whaiora (service users) and their families. Indigenous research is required to further evaluate the acceptability and effectiveness of such joint approaches.

Can the “connectome” save psychiatry?

An individual’s “connectome” (Sporns, Tonino, & Klötter, 2005; Hagmann, 2005) is in essence a mathematical object that describes all the neural connections in a nervous system. The word was coined by Olaf Sporns et al. in their 2005 paper and independently by Patric Hagmann in his doctoral dissertation. Sporns describes the 2005 paper as a “manifesto” outlining an ambitious research program in support of a model linking structure and function that the authors felt would have a profound impact on how we understand the brain. (The following excerpts are from Sporns’ 2010 talk at the Allen institute; the full video is embedded in references.)

We had no information until just a few years ago about similar data [about brain networks]  from the human brain. That was a big gap in our understanding of the human brain because we had no good structural model for it. We had a lot of imaging data . . . But it’s very difficult to interpret imaging data if you have no structural model by which it is generated. (Allen Institute, 2010)

Since 2005, data-driven research on the connectome (some of which is under the auspices of the NIH Human Connectome Project) is now being conducted at multiple scales: micro (“single neurons and synapses”), meso (“brain regions and pathways”), and macro (“neuronal populations and their interconnecting circuitry”) using different imaging technologies.

Implications for Psychiatry

What is particularly attractive about the concept of a connectome vis-a-vis psychiatry is that it “naturally fits within a larger theoretical framework and thus links neuroscience to modern developments in network science and complex systems” (Sporns, 2011). In other words, it grounds a longstanding intuition that the brain in general and psychiatric disorders in particular reflect continuous interactions of biological and sociocultural systems (Kirmayer, 2012).

In the network science field, in other contexts – internet, social networks, epidemiology  – perturbations of networks are very important to study because people want to know what happens when we lesion the network, what happens when we disrupt its functionality in terms of the global outcomes that result. I think we have a similar question on the horizon here for these neurological, psychiatric conditions. What is it about the brain that has changed in terms of its network architecture that brings about – or is involved or at least associated with – the function that is being perturbed. (Allen Institute, 2010)

A second factor is its ability to account for plasticity (and individual differences). This is because while, on the one hand, the connectome constrains neural activity – Sebastian Seung (2012) likens it to a streambed that organizes the flow of water [1]  (and Sporns calls it a “structural skeleton”), on the other neural activity (thoughts, feelings, and perceptions) over time can change the connectome.

If we have a structural model of the human brain we can actually damage it in the computer. And we can ask questions about how impactful are certain lesions that we make inside this computational model. We make these lesions by deleting a number of nodes and their connections. And we then observe how the dynamics – in a forward computing sense – of the human brain changes as a result of making these lesions.  We can then compare  our empirical data to data that is obtained from people with stroke and we can ask questions about recovery. What is it about the metrics of global brain connectivity, functional interactions that changes in a good outcome scenario and is there anything we can do on an interventional level with therapeutic or other interventional means that can guide brain repair and recovery in a good direction. The brain really is a complex network. If we make a lesion in our model in any particular spot, it’s not just that that spot is lost, and the rest of the brain just goes on doing what it’s doing, all relationships across all other nodes in the brain change, and that’s because the brain responds as a whole. This is something that becomes very plastic and very graspable if you do computational modeling and it really opens up new horizons . . . for understanding the functional impact of lesions and perhaps other disease states as well. (Allen Institute, 2010)


[1] Computational neuroscientist Sebastion Seung (MIT), who is studying the connectome from the neuron’s eye view, gave an exuberant talk on the connectome at one of the Ted conferences, and now he’s written an exuberant book on the subject that is, seriously, a page turner that concludes with a section on cryonics and “the ultimate cyber-fantasy” of uploading your brain and “living happily ever after as a computer simluation” (2012, xxi).


Hagmann, P. (2005) From diffusion MRI to brain connectomics (Doctoral dissertation). École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Lausanne.

Seung, S. (2012). The connectome: How the brain’s wiring makes us who we are. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Allen Institute (2010). Olaf Sporns: 2010  Allen Institute for Brain Science Symposium. Retrieved 21 February 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oikjPdV7LbU

Sporns, O. (2011). The human connectome: A complex network. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1224, 109–125.

Sporns, O., Tononi, G., & Kötter, R. (2005). The human connectome: A structural description of the human brain. PLoS Computational Biology, 1(4), e42. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.0010042

Sampling the great posters (!) at 11/11 Soc for Social Neuroscience meeting

I’ll be blogging at the 2011 Society for Social Neuroscience conference on Nov 10–11, 2011, for an interdisciplinary audience. I’m excited about this; I’d like to think of the next ten years as a decade of curiosity (to work outside narrow boundaries) and transformation as much as challenge (particularly for the new generation of academics) in which the possibilities and the pitfalls of expanding social and cultural neuroscience research programs are explored.

Err, back to Earth, this morning I decided to read through the poster abstracts and was quickly overwhelmed by the need to cover everything. Below is a sampling of fifteen abstracts that piqued my interest vis-a-vis our edited volume in process and our next conference (“the emerging neuroscience of culture”). Or, better, download the full program here.

Activity of cortical midline structures during two conditions of autobiographical self Authors: Helder F. Araujo, Jonas Kaplan, Hanna Damasio, and Antonio Damasio

Abstract: At each moment, we can access information about our own body, which includes the changes that occur as a consequence of interactions with the world and of functional adjustments within the organism’s interior. Ultimately, many such moments of self-knowledge are recorded in memory and are integrated in a coherent biography (the autobiographical self, Damasio, 1998, 1999, 2010), which amplifies the scope of the self process and can be used, as needed, in conscious social interactions. The neural basis of the autobiographical self has not been fully elucidated, although one of the most consistent findings of studies about self-reference is the involvement of cortical midline structures (CMSs): medial prefrontal, anterior cingulate, and posteromedial. However, most of these studies have targeted a limited domain of autobiographical self: the investigation of personal traits. Here we explore the involvement of CMSs in the domain of factual biography, e.g. facts that compose each person’s identity. In addition, we also study the involvement of CMS in the evaluation of personal traits, a domain often approached in investigations on self-reference. This is an fMRI block design study, in which 19 subjects answered questions about their own traits, about their factual biography, about the traits of an acquaintance and about factual biography of an acquaintance (4 experimental conditions). In each run, each of the conditions (blocks of 24 seconds) is repeated 3 times and separated by a ‘one-back-task’ (also in blocks of 24 seconds). The one-back-task was used as a baseline. There were a total of three runs per study. Preliminary analysis of data suggests that CMSs are involved in processing both self and non-self biographic information. In some regions of CMSs, non-self conditions were even correlated with higher activity levels than did self-related conditions. These results prompt further discussion about the role of CMSs in self-reference.

Damasio AR: Investigating the biology of consciousness. Transactions of the Royal Society (London) 353:1879-1882, 1998.
Damasio AR: The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Harcourt, New York, 1999
Damasio A: Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Pantheon, 2010
Affiliations: Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California, USA; Neuroscience Graduate Program, University of Southern California, USA; Graduate Program in Areas of Basic and Applied Biology, University of Oporto, Portugal
Keywords: self, cortical midline structures

Bounded Empathy: Neural Responses to Outgroup Targets’ (Mis)fortunes
Authors: Mina Cikara and Susan Fiske

Abstract: A cursory reading of the emotion, empathy, and perception–action literatures might leave one with the impression that people spontaneously experience empathy in response to seeing another person in distress. Recent developments in social psychological and cognitive neuroscience research suggest otherwise: People frequently fail to empathize to the same extent with outgroup members as ingroup members. Not all outgroups are equivalent, however. Depending on the target, people may feel not only less empathy but also pleasure (Schadenfreude) in response to outgroup members’ misfortunes. In contrast, there may also be specific outgroups for whom people feel even more empathy than ingroup members when they suffer a misfortune. Furthermore, no intergroup empathy study of which we are aware has assessed empathy for positive events, which demonstrably varies as a function of group membership. The current fMRI study investigates whether mere stereotypes are sufficient to modulate empathic responses to other people’s good and bad fortunes, how these modulations manifest in the brain, and whether these affective and neural responses relate to endorsing harm against different outgroup targets. Participants report that they feel least bad when misfortunes befall envied targets and worst when misfortunes befall pitied targets, as compared with ingroup targets. Participants are also least willing to endorse harming pitied targets, despite pitied targets being outgroup members. However, those participants who exhibit increased activation in functionally defined insula/middle frontal gyrus when viewing pity targets experience positive events not only report feeling worse about those events but also more willing to harm pity targets in a tradeoff scenario. Similarly, increased activation in anatomically defined bilateral anterior insula, in response to positive events, predicts increased willingness to harm envy targets, but decreased willingness to harm ingroup targets, above and beyond self-reported affect in response to the events. Stereotypes’ specific content and not just outgroup membership modulates empathic responses and related behavioral consequences including harm.

Affiliations: MIT, Princeton University
Keywords: empathy, schadendfreude, stereotypes, fMRI

Facial expressions in mice
Authors: Erwin Defensor, Michael Corley, D. Caroline Blanchard, and Robert Blanchard

Abstract: A previous study described a method to measure facial expressions in mice experiencing pain (Langford et al, 2010). The method measured graded changes in the eyes, ears, cheek, nose and vibrissae of the mouse. Similar criteria were adopted in the current study to further characterize the nature of mouse facial expressions in several conditions: a medium bristle brush approaching the face, non-aggressive social interaction, aggressive social interaction, rat exposure and cat odor exposure. Results showed situation-dependent changes in facial expressions of mice. Most notably, different facial expressions were clearly displayed by resident and intruder mice prior to and during aggressive encounters, suggesting that changes in particular facial components may serve to protect sensitive or exposed body parts. The use of facial expressions as social signals is also discussed.

Affiliation: University of Hawaii
Keywords: facial expressions, aggression, social behavior

Neurochemistry of the BTBR T+tf/J mouse model of autism Authors: Ashley L. Jensen, Erwin B. Defensor, Brandon L. Pearson, D.C. Blanchard, Robert J. Blanchard and Adrian J. Dunn

Abstract: Autism is defined by three core behavioral features: impaired reciprocal social interactions, impaired communication and repetitive and stereotyped behaviors. Despite the absence of a reliable biomarker, several neuropathologies have been associated with the disorder including increased cortical volume at particular developmental ages, agenesis of the corpus callosum and dysfunction of neurotransmitter systems. Animal models allow investigation of anatomical, neurochemical and hormonal abnormalities potentially related to this disorder. Previous studies have shown that the inbred BTBR T+tf/J mouse strain (BTBR) displays several behaviors analogous to the core symptoms of autism. The current study measured central neurotransmitter activity in the BTBR at basal concentrations and also in response to a novel environment and social proximity. Brain tissue concentrations of norepinephrine (NE), dopamine (DA), serotonin (5-HT) and their respective metabolites were measured using high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) with electrochemical detection. Behavioral results were consistent with previous findings in the social proximity test, showing that BTBR mice displayed decreased facial contact and increased crawl over and crawl under behaviors. Several neurochemcial strain differences were observed, especially in cortical and cerebellar concentrations of DA and 5-HT.

Affiliations: University of Hawaii at Manoa, Department of Psychology; Pacific Biosciences Research Center
Keywords: autism, animal models, neurotransmitters

From neural responses to population behavior: Neural focus group predicts population level media effects
Authors: Emily B. Falk, Elliot T. Berkman, and Matthew D. Lieberman

Abstract: Can neural responses to persuasive messages predict individual behavior change? Can the neural responses of a small group of individuals predict the behavior of larger groups of people (e.g. at the city or state level)? We will present data addressing these questions using a “brain-as-predictor” approach. Prior research demonstrates that individual and group behaviors can be predicted using neural activity recorded in response to public health messages. More specifically, neural activity in an a priori region of interest in medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC, BA10) during exposure to persuasive messages predicted behavior change above and beyond self-report measures (such as intentions and self-efficacy to change behavior). The present study builds directly on prior work in our lab in which we explored a behavior of relatively low motivational relevance (sunscreen use) and predicted individual behavior change over one week, and a follow-up study in which we predicted a behavior of high motivational relevance (smokers trying to quit) over a longer period of time (one month); in this context, neural signals more than doubled the variance explained by traditional self-report measures alone. Here, we will present results from an investigation in which neural activity in response to different mass media campaigns predicted the media campaigns’ relative success at changing behavior at the population level, significantly above chance levels. By contrast, the same participants’ self-reported projections of campaign efficacy did not predict the relative success of the campaigns at the population level. Our results highlight the use of the brain-as-predictor analysis approach, in which neural signals from a priori regions of interest are used to predict real-world outcomes of importance over weeks or months; furthermore, we extend the brain-as-predictor approach from predicting individual difference outcomes to show that neural signals not only predict individual behavior change, but may also predict population-level health behaviors. Finally, our results suggest that the brain contains hidden wisdom about the impact of persuasive messages at the individual and population level that is not otherwise accounted for in models of persuasion and behavior change.

Affiliations: University of Michigan, University of Oregon, University of California, Los Angeles
Keywords: fMRI, health, media, persuasion

Rewarding properties of aggression in the male Syrian hamster Authors: Mario Gil, Mark McDonald, Ngoc-Thao Nguyen, and H. Elliott Albers

Abstract: Conditioned place preference (CPP) is a type of classical conditioning in which an animal develops a preference for a compartment or environment that was previously paired with a rewarding stimulus. We tested the hypothesis that male Syrians hamsters can develop a CPP for aggression. Our CPP paradigm consisted of three phases: (1) initial preference tests (pretests), (2) conditioning, and (3) a final preference test (posttest). For all preference tests, the amount of time spent in each compartment of the CPP apparatus was recorded. The animals used in this study showed a clear initial preference for 1 of the 2 compartments. For the conditioning trials, an individually-housed (experimental) male was paired with a nonaggressive group-housed male (stimulus) in their non-preferred compartment for 10 min. An hour before or after stimulus-paired trials in the non-preferred compartment, experimental males were placed alone in their preferred compartment for 10 min. This procedure occurred daily for 5 consecutive days, and order of placement in the compartments was alternated daily. Preference scores and difference scores were calculated for both (pre and post) preference tests. There were no significant differences between pretest and posttest scores for control animals (n=13). Four of the experimental animals flank marked but didn’t show aggression toward the stimulus males. There was a trend toward an increase in preference scores (p=0.1) and a decrease in the difference scores (p=0.09) following conditioning in these animals. That is, before conditioning the mean preference and difference scores were 0.29 (±0.01) and 324.63 (±21.34), respectively. After conditioning, scores changed to 0.49 (±0.08) and 6.25 (±114.50), respectively. Eleven experimental animals showed low to medium levels of aggression. In these animals, conditioning significantly increased the mean preference score from 0.36 (± 0.02) to 0.50 (±0.05) (p< 0.05), while the mean difference score decreased from 208.55 (±26.17) to 5.55 (±76.82) (p< 0.05). The strongest effect was observed in 6 highly aggressive males, as conditioning significantly increased their mean preference score from 0.34 (±0.04) to 0.56 (±0.04) (p< 0.01), while their mean difference score changed from 240.42 (±54.98) to -86.50 (±68.99) (p< 0.01). Our results demonstrate that the Syrian hamster is an excellent rodent model for the study of the rewarding properties of aggression & social behavior. Our data support the hypothesis that aggression has rewarding properties and suggest that the expression of social dominance in nonaggressive animals may also be rewarding. Supported by NSF Grant IOS-0923301 to HEA.

Affiliations: Center for Behavioral Neuroscience; Neuroscience Institute, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA USA
Keywords: aggression, social behavior, motivation, hamsters

Child maltreatment, cumulative lifetime stress and amygdala volume
Authors: Jamie Hanson, Moo Chung . Brian Avants, Karen Rudolph, Elizabeth Shirtcliff, James Gee, Richard Davidson, and Seth Pollak

Abstract: Child maltreatment and cumulative lifetime stress (e.g., unexpected deaths in the family, major health issues) are associated with a cascade of deleterious changes such as major alterations in important brain circuitry, negative outcomes in behavioral functioning, and increased risk for certain psychopathologies (for review, see Lupien et al., 2009). Child maltreatment and the associated disruption of the primary care-giving relationship, in particular, may be a unique diathesis for socio-emotional difficulties, as children who suffer abuse or deprivation/neglect experience significant problems with sensitivity to social boundaries, establishing relationships, emotion regulation under conditions of stress or change, and processing of specific emotions (Pollak, 2008). By investigating the commonalities and discontinuities existing in the sequelae of these different forms of adverse experiences, unique insights may be garnered regarding normative and atypical functioning. For example, there may be unique interactions between child maltreatment and cumulative lifetime stress, with greater negative impacts in children who have faced this early adversity than in those who have not faced this adversity. In this study, we examined the neurobiological correlates of lifetime stress exposure in a sample of children with and without a history of child maltreatment (n=128; mean age=12.6 years), using Symmetric Normalization (Avants & Gee, 2004) and a tensor-based morphometry analytic framework. We hypothesized that cumulative lifetime stress exposure would uniquely affect the amygdala, a brain region central to the processing of socio-emotional information, in children who suffered from early maltreatment but not those who did not suffer from early maltreatment. As hypothesized, a significant association emerged between higher levels of life stress and smaller amygdalae volumes in maltreated children (t=3.6, p<.005, uncorrected; see figure below) but not in non-maltreated children. Individual differences in amygdala volume were related (r=-.296, p=.015) to socio-emotional functioning (e.g., number of close friends, frequency of disciplinary issues at school) as assessed by semi-structured interviews with children and their parents. These findings suggest maltreatment and higher levels of cumulative lifetime stress may interact to uniquely affect important socio-emotional neural circuitry. Results will also be discussed in relation to neuroendocrine variables.

Affiliations: University of Wisconsin- Madison, University of Pennsylvania, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, University of New Orleans
Keywords: adolescence, stress, early experience, maltreatment, socio-emotional

Do chimps “mirror” others’ actions? A functional neuroimaging study of action execution and observation
Authors: Erin Hecht, Lauren Davis and Lisa Parr

Abstract: Social learning is a behavioral adaptation that varies across primate species. Humans have a broad and complex repertoire of socially transmitted behaviors. We can duplicate not only the result of an observed action, but also the specific kinematic method in which it is achieved. In contrast, macaques have a smaller, simpler range of socially transmitted behaviors and duplicate only observed actions’ results. These species differences in behavior are paralleled by species differences in brain activity. Both humans and macaques have a fronto-parietal action observation/execution matching system. In macaques, this system responds only to object-directed actions – those that involve results. In humans, it also responds to purely kinematic, non-object-directed actions. Thus species differences in social learning may be related to which aspects of observed actions are “mirrored” in the brain. Chimpanzee social learning is intermediate to macaques and humans, but their mirror system has not yet been studied. Like humans, they are profuse social learners, but like macaques, they duplicate mainly the results of observed actions. We used positron emission tomography (PET) to investigate how the chimpanzee brain mirrors observed actions. Four chimpanzees were given a 15 mCi oral dose of flourodeoxyglucose (FDG), a radio-labeled glucose analog. Each subject was scanned in four separate conditions. In the execution condition, the chimp performed an object-directed reach-to-grasp action with a small ball. These actions occurred inside a box so that the chimp could not see its own movement. In the transitive observation condition, the chimp observed the experimenter performing the same actions. In the intransitive observation condition, the chimp observed the experimenter miming this action without the ball. In the rest condition, the chimp rested quietly. After a 45 minute testing period, subjects were anesthetized and scanned. FDG has a half-life of 110 minutes and upon decay releases a positron which is detected by the scanner. Brighter areas in the scan thus represent greater FDG uptake and therefore greater metabolic activity during the testing period. In both execution and transitive observation, chimpanzees activated frontal and parietal regions homologous to macaque and human “mirror areas.” In intransitive observation, these activations were weaker and more variable across subjects. Results are related to behavioral data on each subject’s observational learning abilities, as well as to diffusion tensor imaging data on the white matter connectivity of each subject’s activated regions.

Affiliations: Neuroscience Graduate Program, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Center for Translational Social Neuroscience, Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Division of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Keywords: social cognition/sensorimotor transformation: behavior and whole animal

Seeing is believing: Neural mechanisms of action perception are biased by team membership
Authors: Pascal Molenberghs, Veronika Halász, Jason Mattingley, Eric Vanman, and Ross Cunnington

Abstract: Group identification can lead to a biased view of the world in favor of “in-group” members. Studying the brain processes that underlie such in-group biases is important for a wider understanding of the potential influence of social factors on basic perceptual processes. In this study we used fMRI to investigate how people perceive the actions of in-group and out-group members, and how their biased view in favor of own-team members manifests itself in the brain. We divided participants into two teams and had them judge the relative speeds of hand actions performed by an in-group and an out-group member in a competitive situation. Participants judged hand actions performed by in-group members as being faster than those of out-group members, even when the two actions were performed at physically identical speeds. In an additional fMRI experiment we showed that, contrary to common belief, such skewed impressions arise from a subtle bias in perception and associated brain activity rather than decision making processes, and that this bias develops rapidly and involuntarily as a consequence of group affiliation. Our findings suggest that the neural mechanisms that underlie human perception are shaped by social context.

Affiliations: University of Queensland, Queensland Brain Institute; University of Queensland, School of Psychology
Keywords: fMRI, perception of action, group membership

Neural correlates of synchrony
Authors: George T. Monteleone, Elizabeth A. Majka, Haotian Zhou, J.S. Irick, Kimberly Quinn, Gun R. Semin, and John T. Cacioppo

Abstract: The human tendency to spontaneously synchronize with others has been extensively documented in various domains. In the present investigation, we experimentally investigated the neural correlates of perceived synchrony using a newly developed minimal synchrony paradigm that addresses several problems in the extant research, such as a confounding of synchrony and task performance. Specifically, individuals participated in a task similar to cell-phone texting but in which a simple beat (a single tap on the computer keyboard) replaced lexical content. The task was described to participants as “bexting,” short for beat-based texting. During the task, participants believed they were exchanging beats via computer with a human partner, unaware that the ostensible partner’s response was actually a computer-generated response manipulated to be synchronous or asynchronous. Following each condition, participants entered ratings of perceived synchrony with and affiliation for the partner. Sixteen healthy participants performed the task in a 3T Philips scanner. The experimental design was a Period (Bexting versus Rating) x 2 (Bexting Synchrony: high versus low) within-participants factorial design. In the bexting period, participants were instructed to tap beats at around 1 Hz on their own while viewing a pulsing icon representing each finger tap next to a second pulsing icon representing the ostensible partner’s response. In the rating period, participants rated how synchronous they regarded their partner, as well as a series of affiliation ratings felt towards the partner including rapport, liking, and desire to collaborate in the future. Bexting trials were 8s in duration and were blocked in sets of eight constituting each of four bexting rounds. The partner in half of the rounds produced beats that followed the participant by a mean lag of 120 or 220 ms with a temporal jitter of + 10 ms (high synchrony condition), and the partner in the other half of the blocks produced beats that followed the participant by a mean lag of 120 or 220 ms with a temporal jitter of + 110 ms added (low synchrony condition). For the fMRI analysis, 25 ROIs were identified based on prior research on social cognition including sub-regions of the medial prefrontal cortex, superior temporal sulcus, and temporo-parietal junction. Participants’ behavioral ratings were correlated with the BOLD response within participants for each ROI. R-values were converted to Fisher’s Z, and Z-scores were subjected to a one-sample, two-tailed t-tests at the group level to determine which neural regions were positively or negatively correlated with behavioral ratings at the group level. Results demonstrated a significant positive correlation between BOLD response and both perceived synchrony ratings and affiliation ratings in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) during the bexting task. The vmPFC has been reported in prior research to be involved in self-relevant processing as well as theory of mind tasks involving reasoning about the thinking of others. The current study suggests that components of neural networks involved in social cognition are also incorporated in spontaneous perceptions of social synchrony even without any explicit context of observing others’ actions or thinking about oneself.

Affiliations: University of Chicago, University of Birmingham, Utrecht University
Keywords: social neuroscience, social cognition, social psychology, synchrony

Genetic variation in the oxytocin receptor is associated with alterations in perceived social isolation, social rejection and psychological stress reactivity: A population based study in older individuals
Authors: Greg J. Norman, Louise C. Hawkley, Aaron Ball, Maike Luhmann, Steve W. Cole, Gary G. Berntson, and John T. Cacioppo

Abstract: The neuropeptide oxytocin has been implicated in a wide range of social processes, such as pair bonding, social anxiety, and social judgment and decision making, that may contribute to normal adjustment and psychiatric states. Indeed, pharmacological administration of oxytocin has previously been associated with in-group trust and out-group hostility as well as diminished social threat perception and increased theory of mind. Consistent with the pharmacological manipulation studies mentioned above, recent work suggests that single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the oxytocin receptor is associated with numerous social-affective processes. The present study sought to explore the effects of genetic variation in the oxytocin receptor (SNP; rs53576) on levels of perceived social isolation, sensitivity to social rejection and stress reactivity to psychological stress in a population based study of older individuals. Results revealed that males who were homozygous for the G allele showed the highest levels of perceived social isolation and showed significantly higher levels of sympathetic cardiac control following a psychological stressor. In contrast, females who were homozygous for the G allele were significantly more affected by social rejection, as measured by pre-post changes in negativity scores, and they showed significantly smaller parasympathetic withdrawal in response to psychological stress. These data, combined with the growing literature, suggest that variation in the oxytocin receptor system has important effects on social-affective processes related to social isolation, social rejection and stress reactivity.

Affiliations: Department of Psychology, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637; Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology-Oncology, UCLA School of Medicine, Los Angeles, CA, USA; Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio 43210
Keywords: oxytocin, social isolation

Mapping the mind: a constructionist view on how mental states emerge from the brain
Authors: Suzanne Oosterwijk, Kristen A. Lindquist, Eric Anderson, Rebecca Dautoff, Yoshiya Moriguchi, and Lisa Feldman Barrett

Abstract: Neuroimaging studies tend to organize around specific categories, such as memory, cognition and emotion. Psychological constructionism provides a different view on how the mind emerges from the brain and proposes that different mental events (such as emotions, feelings or thoughts) arise from the continuous interplay of the same ‘psychological ingredients’, including sensation, interoception, conceptual knowledge, executive attention, and language. In the present study we used fMRI to examine how the neural networks associated with these ingredients contribute to the experience of three different mental states; a bodily state, an emotion, or a thought. While in the scanner, participants listened to auditory scenarios describing negative events. Participants were instructed to experience these scenarios in four different ways; to focus on bodily sensations; to experience an emotion, or to think about the event in an objective way. Trials started with a cue, followed by the auditory scenario, followed by two consecutive phases. In the construction phase participants created the mental state in reaction to the scenario; in the elaboration phase participants prolonged their mental state by elaborating on its content. To investigate brain regions that are important for the generation of variable mental states, we performed conjunction analyses on the activation patterns for all three conditions during the construction and elaboration phase. Analyses demonstrate substantial overlap in the construction phase in regions associated with self-reflection (precuneus, temporal parietal junction), sensory/motor processing (precentral gyrus, postcentral gyrus, SMA, MCC), executive attention (dlPFC, frontal pole), language (pars triangularis, pars opercularis) and interoception (anterior insula). Conjunction during the elaboration phase showed similar regions, with in addition a large cluster in the left ventromedial prefrontal cortex. To examine difference between body focus, emotion and thought, we calculated contrast maps focusing on the cortical surface of the whole brain. The most prominent results concerned the listening and elaboration phase. During listening, we found stronger activation in areas associated with self-reflection and conceptual knowledge (precuneus, temporal parietal junction, posterior cingulate gyrus), interoception (insula, anterior cingulate cortex) and sensation (precentral and postcentral gyrus) when participants where cued with body focus than when they were cued with emotion or thought. In contrast, emotion and thought demonstrated stronger activation in areas associated with auditory processing (planum temporale, superior temporal gyrus, Heschl’s gyrus). During the elaboration phase, we found stronger activation in areas associated with interoception (anterior insula) and sensory motor processes (precentral and postcentral gyrus) for body focus compared to emotion. Comparing thought to body focus and emotion, we found stronger activation in the default network (medial prefrontal cortex) and in areas associated with memory and conceptual processing (anterior temporal lobe, precuneus, parahippocampal gyrus). Overall, the results show that different mental states involve similar brain areas, associated with basic processes such as conceptualization, interoception, attention and language, albeit with relative differences in strength of activation. These results enrich our understanding of how different mental states emerge from the brain.

Affiliations: Northeastern University, Harvard University, Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging; National Institute of Mental Health, National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry
Keyword: mental states

Epigenetic modifications in the regulation of maternal experience in mice
Authors: Danielle S. Stolzenberg, Jacqueline Stevens, and Emilie F. Rissman

In numerous mammalian species experience interacting with offspring facilitates future maternal responding. In rodents, although parturitional hormones facilitate maternal responding, the facilitatory effects of maternal experience on subsequent maternal care depend on mother-infant interaction. We have recently found that experience with pups induces long-lasting effects on subsequent maternal care in spontaneously maternal C57BL/6J (B6) mice. Importantly, subtle differences in the amount of pup experience affect maternal care. For example, whereas 2 days of pup experience (2 hours/day) promoted retrieval behavior in the familiar home cage, at least 4 days of pup experience was necessary for females to retrieve pups on the novel T-maze. One mechanism through which experience-dependent behavioral modifications are regulated is epigenetic histone acetylation. Addition of acetyl groups by histone acetyltransferases (HATs) to the histone proteins around which DNA is wrapped increases the sensitivity of DNA to transcriptional regulation. Experience-dependent behavioral modifications have been linked to epigenetic modifications, however, how these mechanisms mediate experience-dependent effects on maternal care is untested. In support of the idea that experience-dependent effects on maternal responsiveness are mediated, at least in part, by epigenetic modifications, maternal experience-dependent increases in maternal care are associated with increased expression of the HAT CREB-binding protein (CBP). Further, brief periods of infant exposure that do not affect subsequent maternal care are potentiated by Sodium Butyrate (SB), a drug that enhances experience-induced histone acetylation. These data suggest that histone acetylation promotes maternal responsiveness via transcription of genes that increase maternal responsiveness. This work has been supported by NIH T32 training grant # DK007646 and R01 MH057759.

Affiliation: University of Virginia
Keywords: maternal behavior, HDAC inhibitor

Do you think it or feel it? Language and neural activity reflect individual differences in emotion processing
Authors: Xiao-Fei Yang, Darby E. Saxbe, Larissa A. Borofsky, Maeve C. Murphy, and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Abstract: How do people describe their emotional states, and how does their word use reflect the underlying neural processing? This study explored the relationship between subjects’ word use when responding to emotional stories and their subsequent BOLD activity elicited by the same stories. We hypothesized that subjects’ use of cognitive words (words that reflect abstract thinking, such as “understand,” “know” and “wonder”) and body words (words that describe visceral sensations and body parts) would reflect two differing emotion processing strategies: one that relies more on abstract reasoning, and another that relies more on the feeling of the physical body during emotion. We expected these strategies to correlate with BOLD activity in brain regions involved in somatosensation, such as the somatosensory cortices (SI & SII), and self-reflection, such as the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC) and the posteromedial cortices (PMC, including precuneus and posterior cingulate cortex, PCC). During an emotion induction interview that preceded the scanning session, 28 subjects discussed their feelings about true stories designed to elicit specific social emotions; these included stories describing self-sacrificing or heroic behavior (admiration for virtue; AV); and stories of social exclusion or isolation (compassion for social pain; CSP). During the scanning session, the subjects viewed brief reminders of the stories and were asked to become as emotional as possible (see Immordino-Yang et al., 2009). Transcripts of subjects’ verbal responses during the interviews were analyzed using the quantitative word counting software program LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count; Pennebaker, Booth and Francis, 2001) to generate word use frequencies for cognitive and body words. BOLD activity across the AV and CSP conditions was estimated for each individual and entered into group-level whole brain correlation analyses using cognitive and body word frequencies as regressors (SPM8). Consistent with our hypotheses, subjects who used more cognitive words tended to use fewer body words (Pearson’s rho = -.375, p < .025). Cognitive word use inversely correlated with activation in dMPFC, SI and SII, while body word use directly correlated with activations in dMPFC, posterior/inferior sector of precuneus/PCC and supramarginal gyrus (p < .005, cluster threshold of 10 voxels). The word use patterns and associated BOLD results support our hypothesis that individuals adopt different strategies during emotion processing: some engage in more cognitive, abstract reasoning, while others rely more on representing their physical body states.

Affiliations: Neuroscience Graduate Program, University of Southern California; Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California; Department of Psychology, University of Southern California; Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California
Keywords: social emotion, language use, embodiment

Social dominance behavior and threat orienting in young adult monkeys is modulated by fluoxetine during early adolescence
Authors: Bo Zhang, Pamela Noble, Jeremy Kruger, Stephen Suomi, Daniel Pine, Eric Nelson

Abstract: Late childhood and early adolescence is a time when dramatic changes in social behavior occur. The peri-pubertal period is also a developmental period which sees a marked increase in the incidence of mood and anxiety disorders which are often associated with social behavior. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) such as fluoxetine are a common treatment for anxiety and mood disorders in both adults and children, and clinical trials have demonstrated their efficacy. However the effects of chronic SSRI administration on development have not been fully explored. In the present study, we assessed the effects of chronic fluoxetine treatment on social behavior of adolescent and young adult monkeys both during treatment and following a washout period. Thirty-two male rhesus monkeys were randomly assigned to either peer rearing (PR) or mother rearing (MR) conditions for the first 6 months of life. MR monkeys were reared with mothers and other peers in a large social group while PR monkeys were removed from their mothers soon after birth and reared with a small group of peers. At 6 months of life both groups had identical social housing conditions. Between 2-3 years of age half of each group was treated with fluoxetine 3mg/kg/day. Social behavior was assessed both during and after treatment with a series of exposures to a novel individual and varied rearing and treatment histories. Fluoxetine treatment significantly reduced the expression of dominance behaviors during treatment and this pattern persisted in the post-treatment period. In the post-treatment period, drug treated monkeys received more dominance displays by partner than untreated animals. Attention orienting to social threat stimuli was also assessed in the post-treatment period with eyetracking methodology, and fluoxetine was found to modulate threat orienting behavior as well. These results suggest that fluoxetine exposure during early adolescence may have long term consequences on threat orienting behavior and may influence the development of social behavior in rhesus monkeys.

Affiliations: National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Keywords: ssri, social dominance, development

Imagining the Future: A 10-Year Plan for Neuroscience

Harvard Provost and neuroscientist Steven Hyman summary vision of roadmap (introduced by Garen Staglin at One Mind for Research Forum May 23–25, 2011). Additional videos from conference on genetics, emotion, learning and memory, the connectome, translational neuroscience, as well as interview with Karl Deisseroth (optogenetics, Stanford) via TheScienceNetwork.Org.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Waking, Dreaming, Being: FPR Interview with Philosopher Evan Thompson

Science writer Karen A. Frenkel interviews philosopher Evan Thompson (University of Toronto) for the Foundation for Psychocultural Research about his new book in progress, Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience and Mediation.

Photo by Raphaele Demandre. Dharamsala, India. October 2004.

Evan Thompson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, works in the areas of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and comparative philosophy. He is the co-author (with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch) of the groundbreaking book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, (MIT Press, 1991), one of the first books to explore systematically the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and cognitive science, and to argue for the “embodied” approach in cognitive science. Thompson is also the author of Colour Vision: a Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception (Routledge, 1995) and Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Belknap Press, 2007), and co-editor, with Philip David Zelazo and Morris Moscovitch, of the Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

KAF: You are interested in the central problem of whether consciousness is a primary phenomenon not wholly dependent on the brain and can’t be reduced or understood as anything else. And in your new book, you call for acknowledging the contribution of these traditions to understanding the mind. On the other hand, you point out that science has contributed to knowledge of evolution and brain development. Please say more about your position on how we can get these two approaches to collaborate in our understanding of the mind and whether or not it transcends the brain.

ET: I’m interested in the nature of the mind. On the one hand, we have contemplative traditions with  expertise in examining first-hand the nature of the mind from within, where “from within” means through direct experience in a rigorous way that involves training attention, emotion, and awareness so that basic characteristics of the mind manifest in a clear way. On the other hand, we have our scientific tradition. Historically, the scientific tradition emerged in a way that excluded the mind—the mind was treated as subjective, and science was interested in things that are objective and public. So if you look at the rise of physics, for example, we have a bracketing off of subjective experience. But in the 20th century that method was turned back on the mind through experimental psychology. Today we can record what’s going on in the brain. Through neuroscience, due to new tools like brain scans and electrophysiological recordings, we try to see what’s going on in brain while someone is having a visual experience, or while sleeping, or dreaming. We try to investigate the mind through the brain. I’m interested in how these two ways of understanding the mind relate to each other and can be brought into a productive interaction. This comes down to the problem of consciousness because when we look at brain recordings when someone’s falling asleep, is asleep, or dreaming, what we have are measures of the brain that have some relationship to consciousness, to the person’s experience. On the other hand, what we’re looking at in the meditative traditions is the mind or consciousness through direct experience. So the deep question that the encounter of these traditions raises is: What is the nature of consciousness? The traditional position of many contemplative traditions is that consciousness is primary, in the sense that it’s where we start from, where all our evidence comes from, and is what we always have to relate back to. So there is no way to meaningfully talk about getting outside of consciousness to see how it measures up to something else, because we’re always working within consciousness. From a scientific perspective, however, we’re looking at biological processes. It’s not as if consciousness is observable apart from a brain and a body. So our touchstone is always incarnate, embodied. We have these two inseparable aspects of consciousness—the experiential and the embodied. And so the question arises: is the biological primary or is the experiential primary?

We need to think about a new way of doing

the science of the mind, the science of

consciousness. This new way integrates

biology and psychology with phenomenology

and works directly with first-person

experience in a laboratory setting.

KAF: What do you think?

ET: What I want to do in my new book, which is a work in progress called Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience and Meditation, is show that we can’t prioritize one over the other. We have to have a non-dualistic perspective.

On the one hand, from the scientific side we have to recognize that we’re always working within experience. Scientists perform measurements that relate back to their own experience as observers and they communicate what they observer to other scientists. This takes place within social experience. So there’s no way to get outside of experience there.

On the other hand, from the contemplative perspective, experience is primary, but it’s always embodied. In meditation, you put the body in a particular posture and orient it in certain ways. You’re also in a communicative context with other individuals, such as your teacher or the practice community.  So it’s misguided to think we can prioritize one over the other—the experience or the embodiment, We need a non-dualistic perspective that doesn’t valorize one over the other.

But that leads to the concrete question, especially if you’re a scientist, how do we work with that perspective concretely? What do we actually do? We need to think about a new way of doing the science of the mind, the science of consciousness. This new way integrates biology and psychology with phenomenology and works directly with first-person experience in a laboratory setting.

KAF: Can you give an example?

ET: One way in a neuroimaging experiment, for example, is to investigate attention or awareness with individuals who have trained their minds in meditation. The working hypothesis is that trained meditators can make reports about their experience that are quite refined and precise compared to the reports we get from inexperienced undergrads. I have in mind experiments where someone is in a brain scanner and we ask them to report about some aspect or quality of their perception or emotion. With more detailed and refined first-person reports we can enrich the information available about experience and how it relates to the brain.

Here’s another example. In the last five years there’s been a renewal of interest in mind wandering or “spontaneous cognition,” as psychologists call it. This goes back to William James. The mind flows in a “stream of consciousness,” to use James’ metaphor. Mind wandering reflects self-organizing activity that you miss when you put someone in a controlled experiential situation and give them a task. When left to its own devices the brain spontaneously generates images, thoughts, plans for the future. So neuroscientists have been putting people in scanners and their minds are allowed to wander. And then the scientists probe the subjects, asking them, “when your mind was wandering at a certain moment, were you aware or not aware that it was wandering?” The hypothesis is that a person who practices certain kinds of meditation would be faster at noticing when thoughts arising and be able to describe them more precisely, such as being able to say what intention or feeling was behind the thought, whether the thought lead to another one, whether there was an immediate awareness of the thought arising, or whether it was noticed later, and so on. Highly trained meditators can make these reports because meditation trains attention and awareness of the mind itself. That’s not to devalue the importance of working with people who don’t have meditative training; in fact, it’s very important to compare them and to control for other factors like age, culture, and gender.

KAF: So someone would be in an fMRI machine spacing out and if a neuroscientists saw more flow of blood in a particular part of their brain at a certain moment they would ask what they was thinking about and see if that changed blood flow?

ET: You’d be in scanner and have a repetitive task to do, like whenever you see a letter instead of a number, you press or withhold pressing a button. It doesn’t demand too much attention so your mind naturally wanders. Then the scientists randomly ask, “Were you on task or off?” and if off task, “Were you aware or not for being off task?” Then they compare the blood flow in various brain areas immediately prior to someone saying they were off task and aware, or off task and unaware. Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia is doing this mind wandering work and I’m collaborating with her on studies with meditators.

Here’s another example: you’re in the scanner and you see a red bar graph like a mercury thermometer and the red level goes up or down depending on what your brain is doing. You can try to make it go up or down through various mental procedures. If you’re trained in meditation, you might have greater flexibility to make the bar move.

KAF: What are some applications for this ability?

ET: The management of chronic pain. We know that some aspects of pain are sensory and some aspects have to do with whether you respond to this sensory aspect adversely or with acceptance. Brain areas that have to do with judgmental response to pain are affected by meditation training. So you can combine meditation training and neuro-feedback about these regions to try to help such patients learn mental pain management skills.

KAF: In your book you use phrases like “examining the brain from within,” “first-person exploration,” and “meditative insight.” What do you mean by them?

ET: I use the word “insight” in a precise way that comes from Buddhist philosophy and mediation. It means the ability to discern what’s happening precisely in your experience from moment to moment. It’s different from focusing your attention on one thing continuously without distraction. It requires stability of attention, but the point of insight is not simply to stabilize your attention but to hold your mind quiet and unwavering so that you can discern fluctuations like the arising of a feeling or thought, or the way that feeling leads to memory. Or the way a pain sensation biases you towards an aversive reaction so that you can work with that bias and loosen it so that you can deal with that pain more adequately. So the Buddhist practice of insight targets that discerning capacity of the mind; it’s what enables us to see things as they are instead of through all our habitual filters.

In the context of working on the neuroscience of consciousness, the hypothesis would be that people with training in meditative insight can provide more nuanced information about consciousness than others who don’t have that kind of training. One example I find particularly fascinating is work on dreaming. In the last couple of years, it’s been recognized that lucid dreaming (knowing you’re dreaming when you’re dreaming) is a robust, valid state of consciousness that’s different from ordinary dreaming and from being awake. Some neuroimaging pilot studies have been done on lucid dreaming. Meditative traditions in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism work with lucid dreaming as a state of consciousness that can be used to train the mind and work with negative emotions, which are so strong in dreams. I hypothesize that those with meditative training would make good participants in experiments on lucid dreaming because they can inhabit this state in a robust and stable way and report on it by making certain kinds of eye movements while dreaming.

KAF: Meditators can report on their eye movements?

ET: The way this works is when you’re in a dream and you know you’re dreaming, and your dream ego looks left and right and so on, that shows up as regular eye movements in the REM stage, when the eyes start out moving irregularly. If you have a pre-established code for what these regular eye movements mean, you can use that as way of making reports, and as a marker of when the dream became a lucid dream. The dreamer can report on some quality of the dream. You could ask the dreamer to jump up and down 10 times in the dream and signal when they begin and finish.  Then you can compare that to jumping up and down when they’re awake. Why is that interesting? It tells you about the time course of motor activity in the brain and the subjective sense of time in the dream state compared to the time it would take to make those movements in the waking stating.

KAF: It enables us to compare brain activity to what’s going on in the mind during a lucid dream.


KAF: Let’s go on to religion and science. You object, in your book, to the bifurcation we see today between religious extremism and the scientific materialist tradition because they don’t recognize the contemplative traditions. What’s the best way to get them to recognize the contemplative tradition and use it so that we may survive together?

ET: We have to create a scientific culture that recognizes the value of contemplative experience, and we have to create a culture of wisdom or spirituality that recognizes the value of science. We have to hold the two together. If we can’t or don’t, we will slide into one or other extreme—the resurgence of anti-scientific religious fundamentalism based on outmoded belief systems that are not valid and sustainable, or sustainable only in violent, terrible ways, or a scientific reductionism that doesn’t recognize the value of contemplative traditions, including the way that religious traditions have been the home where contemplative traditions have developed and flourished.

To be fair, many elements in religious history have been antagonistic to mysticism and contemplative experience, so it’s not as if reductionistic scientific trends are the only problem for contemplative traditions.

We have to move beyond this situation if we’re going to be a wholesome and healthy culture. The way I see forward is to working within both science and contemplative traditions to create a science that recognizes the importance and value of these traditions, while also transforming these traditions with scientific knowledge. I see this as potentially leading to a new post-religious or secular spirituality. I mean “secular” in the sense of a place where many different traditions can meet and hold something in common for the common good.

KAF: It’s interesting that your way out of this is that scientific culture should modify itself rather than the religious extremists. Why is that?

ET: Religious extremists should modify themselves. It’s important to challenge religious extremisms in a multitude of ways including from within the religious traditions themselves. I don’t mean to exclude that. But my strategy in this book is to show how science can be enriched and to point to different ways of thinking about science and religion from what we see in authors like Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Sam Harris is actually a bit different, in that he ends his book, The End of Faith, by talking about consciousness and meditative experience. It’s important for him that this be something that’s seen as valid. Hitchens sometimes says similar things, so there’s diversity among these authors and their positions. But the critical dismissal of religion most associated with Dawkins takes religion at its absolute worst, but has no discussion of how religion is not the same as theism, or how religious traditions have been the home for contemplative experience and how that kind of experience is a source of wisdom and insight relevant to science.

KAF: Is it more important to bridge the gap now than ever before?

ET: It’s more important than ever because these extremisms are stronger than ever before. Religious extremisms are particularly troubling and it’s very important to transform religious traditions in a why that maintains and enriches what’s best, which are the contemplative traditions and the social ethics informed by them, while leaving behind regressive and outmoded belief systems. That’s never been more important than now in world history. In the case of science, it’s very important that we have a deep inner appreciation of the mind and ways of working with it in a wholesome manner because this is a culture that suffers from a variety of ailments like ADHD that we treat try to treat with exclusively pharmaceuticals means. Our population is also an aging one that needs to deal with sickness and death. Our culture also inculcates certain habits of attention in children through video games and texting. I don’t mean to criticize these technologies in and of themselves, but they’re unhealthy when not placed in a richer, wider context of wholesome attentional functioning and mental wellbeing.

To create a rich science of the mind that’s

adequate to the complexities of mind, we

need a more precise language for talking

about the mind, especially at an experiential

level…. Indian and Tibetan traditions … have

very systematic, precise descriptions of

mental processes from the perspective of


KAF: When you were talking about reporting states of mind, I wondered about having to overcome the language barrier, that is, the difficulty of describing them and interpreting how they’re reported.

ET: First, to create a rich science of the mind that’s adequate to the complexities of mind, we need a more precise language for talking about the mind, especially at an experiential level. In western philosophy this was of concern to William James and philosophers in the phenomenological tradition, like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Edmund Husserl. In Indian and Tibetan traditions we have very systematic, precise descriptions of mental processes from the perspective of experience. These are arguably very helpful to recent developments in western science. For example, neuroscience and psychology have recently challenged the idea that there’s a sharp separation between thinking and feeling, or between reason and passion, or cognition and emotion. If you try to map these distinctions onto the brain, they make no sense. There is no area of the brain that is a thinking area vs a feeling area. If any area can be described as a cognitive area, it’s also a crucial area for emotion. Interestingly, Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions have very detailed taxonomies of mental phenomena, but no sharp distinction between cognition and emotion. Things are taxonomized in a different way—according to whether they’re wholesome states of mind, like compassion, or unwholesome states like envy or hatred. Attention is neither wholesome nor unwholesome in itself. These taxonomies have to do with looking at the mind so it can be trained and shaped in wholesome ways. Within that framework, some things we would call cognition are in some places and some things we’d call emotion are in other places, but there’s no distinction between cognition and emotion. This kind of taxonomy can be a useful and refreshing perspective for western science. I’m not saying we can take it and impose it on the brain. That’s too naïve.  But it could provide a shift, a different way of looking at how the mind works. That could be and has been very inspiring for neuroscientists like Richie Davidson, who’s done a lot of work on the neuroscience of meditation.

Second, when working with foreign cultural and linguistic traditions, for example long-term Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, immediately a complicated dialog has to take place in order to do  psychological or neuroscientific investigations into how their meditative practices might affect the brain and its structure and functioning. We need to understand what these practitioners are talking about when they describe their experiences. That understanding requires second-person perspective in a laboratory where we work with someone who is skilled in mediating between western science and the Tibetan language and meditative philosophical perspective. To do this kind of experimental research on meditation, you need a multi-talented team. So we get a different kind of neuroimaging lab—one with people who have an array of skills in meditation, Tibetan language, philosophy, and neuroscience. We’re creating a much richer field of knowledge than what happens when we just run studies on American undergraduate students. It’s not as if this field is just there, waiting to be put into action; we have to create it.

KAF: Are there a few such labs now in the US?

ET: There are a number of teams in Europe, the US, and Canada. Richie Davidson has spearheaded a lot of this research. He has published major scientific studies and has a big lab devoted to this kind of research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. There are others in various places.  Amishi Jha at Miami University works on mindfulness training and its impact on attention. Kalina Christoff , who I already mentioned, is working on meditation and mind wandering. Adam Anderson at my university, the University of Toronto, uses mindfulness based stress reduction, which is a clinical secular adaptation of yoga and Buddhist meditation, to investigate emotion and how we experience the self. Tanya Singer in Leipzig at the Max Planck Institute is working on empathy and compassion and meditation. Within neuroscience it’s a small group of people compared to the majority.

Within clinical psychology there many people examining mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfullness-based cognitive therapy. There are a number of groups in the US, Canada, England, and Europe. This kind of research is much more widespread than the neuroscience research on meditation.

KAF: Cultural neuroscientist Shinobu Kitayama believes that studying the brain with fMRIs and EEGs will make it possible to see how culture might be transformed into a biological process. He believes the brain is very malleable and designed to incorporate cultural information. Your work is very cross-cultural too. So do you think Western and Eastern minds may be wired differently, so that each may implement contemplative or meditative traditions differently?

ET: I wouldn’t say it that way. “West” and “East” are very general categories. “West” includes North American, Europe, and South America, and “East” encompasses Japan, China and Korea and India.

KAF: OK. But you know what I’m getting at. Might an Indian do mediation differently than a New Yorker like me?

ET: We don’t know because we don’t have enough studies and evidence that speak directly to that. But given the kind of work being done in cultural neuroscience and at the interface with anthropology, we have very good reason to believe that culture strongly shapes how the brain and the body develop. Connecting this work to meditation is speculative because we don’t have evidence that speaks directly to the way culturally different practices or styles of meditation affect the brain. But it’s reasonable to think that the way attention is trained or the way different cultures support habits of attention might be reflected in the way brain systems for attention are structured and organized. It’s reasonable to believe this. One caveat is that many people think everyone in Asia meditates. But in many Asian cultures, the majority of Buddhists don’t meditate, though they participate in social practices that have a meditative dimension. And those who do meditation don’t learn to meditate as young children. Most Asian cultures don’t start training in mediation until adolescence—maybe 15, 16 or 17. You may be trained in other things, such as memorizing texts if you’re a young monk, which indirectly train attention. So all of this is to say we really need much more research that relates the culture to the meditative practices to the brain systems, and this research hasn’t been done. But cultural neuroscience has a great perspective for looking at the kind of research that needs to be done here.

KAF: Do you think the contemplative traditions can enhance neuroplasticity and how flexible the mind and brain may be? Has this been shown?

ET: We do have some evidence from Richie Davidson’s lab. He looked at how attention is changed as a result of intensive insight or Vipassana meditation practice. He tested visual attention along with EEG measures that are well-known and well-understood markers of attentional processing. He ran attentional tests on individuals before they went on an intensive three-month retreat and after the retreat, and compared their performance also to non-mediators. He found that three months of Vipassana meditation significantly improves the function of attention and that this is reflected in EEG brainwaves associated with attention. There are other studies that show there are pretty significant changes to attention as a result of meditation. They tell us that, yes, intensive mediation practice leads to significant changes in attention and that these changes are reflected in brain functioning.

KAF: I’ll just be devil’s advocate for a moment. The contemplatives that you describe who have observed their own process of dying, have had the luxury, it seems to me, of dying during peaceful times or circumstances. I wonder if you think this tradition would help when someone is dying in an emergency or a time of war?

ET: That’s a really great question. One centerpiece of the contemplative traditions is practicing to increase awareness of death and mortality and to try to create a wholesome frame of mind that can meet death when it happens. We do have anecdotal reports of Tibetans who’ve been tortured and imprisoned who say that what got them through the torture and helped them survive was their ability to recognize that the torturer was also a sufferer, in the sense that the torturer was committing an act that was destructive to his own mind, ordered by someone else, and who was ignorantly perpetuating his own suffering. Not necessarily in the same way as the person tortured, obviously. But that he was in a predicament, that he was unhappy and in a condition of suffering.

This ability to feel compassion for someone who is severely mistreating you suggests that these monks may be exceptional individuals. This also relates to scientists who are interested in why some people who suffer severe trauma, such as these monks, don’t develop PTSD, and what mediation might or might not have to do with this kind of resilience. In any case, this kind of resilience suggests to me that the ability to deal with death in variety of situations as a dying person or caregiver could be significantly improved by having contemplative ways to face suffering.

The crucial point here is that we are a culture

that refuses to face the reality of dying, that

flees from it, that does everything it can to

hide it, and creates horrific hospital

environments in which to end one’s days. A

scientific culture that has a contemplative

mindset and allows itself to recognize the

reality of death, and works with that

contemplative perspective to create situations

more socially harmonious and beneficial to

the dying and those dealing with the dying, is

something we desperately need.

The crucial point here is that we are a culture that refuses to face the reality of dying, that flees from it, that does everything it can to hide it, and creates horrific hospital environments in which to end one’s days. A scientific culture that has a contemplative mindset and allows itself to recognize the reality of death, and works with that contemplative perspective to create situations more socially harmonious and beneficial to the dying and those dealing with the dying, is something we desperately need. There are people already working with this in hospice care. Joan Halifax, Roshi, a Buddhist teacher in Santa Fe, NM, has a contemplative training program called “Being with Dying” to help clinicians be more effective with end-of-life care. That’s where I see real value of the contemplative perspective on death.

KAF: You write that attention is unstable and that meta-awareness is hard. I think it’s getting more unstable with people multitasking—kids listening to iTunes while playing video games and doing homework these and other technologies on in the background. I worry that they spread attention thin, whereas video games are one-pointed concentration, to use your phrase. So how can we get kids who grew up with these technologies to be contemplative? What if they don’t want to be?

ET: That connects to work people are trying to do with mindfulness and education. What may be the most important is to develop mindfulness training methods or programs that aren’t religious but secularize and can be used in public school settings. Mindfulness methods with no religious content and acceptable to those you come from one religion or another, or no religion.

KAF: Is there an attempt to do this with religion?

ET: Within religion there are contemplative movements within Christianity and Judaism in religious schools. I don’t know about Islam.

KAF: You’d like to see it secularized?

ET: I’d like to both see secular and non-secular. Both are essential. I also think it’s urgent to restructure schools in a way that doesn’t simply import these mindfulness methods into the schools and leave everything else unchanged. They need to be integrated with other ways of restructuring curricula so that they’re integrated in a meaningful way.

I’m a child of the ‘70s. I was raised around yoga and meditation. Some of it was funny and was the silliness of the times but other aspects of it were very important and had lasting value for me. I learned a very simple breath-centering mantra when I was around seven years old. It was crucial for me to have the sense that there was a place to go mentally to center myself in order to deal with the difficulties you face when you’re a kid. That’s a human birth right. We all have that ability and we should all be a given some training that gives us that ability just as we’re trained to learn the multiplication tables and play basketball. That would be really important. Kids who want to resist it will and that’s not worth directly fighting. It’s more important to make this available. Kids fight things at different developmental stages and it’s important for kids to fight certain things so that’s part of life and not troubling to me. But if all we have are texting and video games and iPods and things like that to capture our attention, then we’re unbalanced. It’s not that we should get rid of those things and they won’t go away anyway. It’s that they should be situated in broader, richer context.

KAF: The New York Times recently ran two stories about meditation and Yoga coming back.  “Look Who’s Meditating Now,” was in the Fashion and Style section. There’s a celebrity and it references celebrity faddism with the Kabala. It mentions that the squash team at Trinity College begins its meets by mediating together. The other story, “Agent Pursues a Cut of the Yoga Boom,” was a local piece.  But there was a meeting in December and there were some statistics about how meditation may reduce hypertension and diabetes. Can you comment on whether there’s fashion here or whether the contemplative tradition can get diluted.

ET: On the one hand, anything that improves quality of life is great. On the other hand, it’s a dilution of the real point and purpose of contemplative traditions to assimilate them into the American self-help agenda. The self-help agenda is about a self that is very egotistically conceived and the meditative traditions are about breaking that down and creating a sense of compassion and connectedness and empathy for other suffering beings—not just humans but also animals. There is an element of fashion and faddism. A self-help agenda can assimilate something new that’s driven by marketing. I’m don’t think that’s of particularly deep, lasting value.

KAF: Whom do you most want to reach with your new book?

ET: My hope is to reach a wide audience of scientists, clinicians, and philosophers—professionals and clinicians who have an interest in nature of mind and consciousness and want to know how meditation and neuroscience are creating a new, richer picture of the human mind and consciousness. I especially like the idea of reaching graduate and undergraduate students because they’re the future of knowledge. To inspire them with this vision, that would be a great accomplishment.

“Where Do you Think Neuroscience Is Going?” (NRN Interview with Kavli Prize Winners)

This was one of the final questions posed by Claudia Wiedemann of Nature Reviews Neuroscience to the  Kavli prize winners in neuroscience, James Rothman of Yale, Richard Scheller of Genentech, and Thomas Südhof of Stanford  (NRN 11, 669-673).

For me, the biggest unknown is neither at the molecular level, nor at the systems level, as much as there is still to be found at both. There must be a basic logic at the level of local circuitry that enables correlations and comparisons to be made with weighted outcomes (according to emotional tone). That is fundamentally what a brain does. For example, cortex has the same remarkable multi-layered histology throughout, and cortex anywhere seems to be able to differentiate, depending on its inputs, to assume the normal function of any other region. I know that oversimplifies, but it is essentially true and totally remarkable. The logic at the circuitry level that permits this is a complete mystery. – James Rothman, Fergus F. Wallace Professor of Biomedical Sciences; Chair, Department of Cell Biology, Yale University

I believe that we are entering an age in which diseases of the nervous system will be approachable from a much more mechanistic viewpoint. This will happen due to a combination of molecular and cellular studies, as described above, along with human genetics studies. It will be very gratifying to help people with disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression, schizophrenia, spinal cord injuries and stroke. – Richard Scheller, Executive Vice President of Research and Early Development, Genentech

[T]he future of neuroscience is to use molecular understanding as the basis on which to build a systems view, and not the opposite way around. Thomas Südhof, Avram Goldstein Professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, Stanford University School of Medicine