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Words and Images by Brain Scientists

H. Sebastian Seung —— 3 Stephen J. Smith —— 4 S. Barak Caine —— 5 Richard H. Masland —— 6 Venkatesh N. Murthy —— 7 Michael Herzog —— 8 Nicholas J. Wade —— 9 Adriano Aguzzi —— 10 Neville E. Sanjana —— 11 David P. Corey —— 12 John C. Anderson —— 13 Christof Koch —— 14 Richard H. R. Hahnloser —— 16 Edward S. Boyden —— 17 Carl E. Schoonover —— 18 Nuno M. M. A. da Costa —— 19 Rainer W. Friedrich —— 20 John E. Dowling —— 21 Javier DeFelipe —— 22 Pierre J. Magistretti —— 23 Didier Grandjean —— 24 Daniel C. Kiper —— 25 Jacopo Annese —— 26 Nicolas Toni —— 27 Terrence J. Sejnowski —— 28

In the 17th century, the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote of his dread upon contemplating the vastness of outer space. But we need only turn our thoughts inward to feel the power of the infinite. Inside every one of our skulls lies an organ that is so vast in its complexity that it might well be infinite. What we neuroscientists know about the brain is no more than a little speck floating in a vast universe of ignorance. • H. Sebastian Seung Professor Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Since first seeing neurons clearly over a century ago, humans have been struck by the beauty of these tree-like objects. Perhaps the species’ recent evolutionary stint as arboreal primates has hard-wired us to love the sight of trees and forests ! Thus, as we begin to see not only the brain’s trees, but its vast, intricate, and diverse forests, we may find that the most beautiful sights of all really are within us. • Stephen J. Smith Professor Stanford University


A Parkinson’s victim regains control of her body with L-dopa. A schizophrenic man paralyzed by fear and hallucinations is freed from a mental institution by clozapine. A meth addict lies, cheats, and steals, ending up emaciated and dead. Miracles and monstrosities, all related to a single molecule : dopamine. In a one-kilogram organ, hundred billion neurons with thousands of molecules and infinite circuits enable sentience, identity, and abilities. No human horizon is as urgent and ripe for discovery as neuroscience. • S. Barak Caine Professor Harvard University


There are things that the brain does, that we know we do not understand : insight, pattern recognition, art. But even the things that we think we understand, we do not understand. We know that huge systems of feedback neurons enswathe the visual system — we can see them there before our eyes — and yet they are invisible in our little textbook diagrams of how vision works. We lack a concept. We lack even the first concept… • Richard H. Masland Professor Harvard University


Although scientists like to emphasize how much we don’t know about the brain, much progress has actually been made. For example, we have learnt a lot about the nature of messages carried by neurons using electrical impulses. The difficult thing about scientific inquiry is that the more we learn, the more we become aware of our ignorance. But we must not let the vastness of the neural terra incognita dampen our enthusiasm for exploration. • Venkatesh N. Murthy Professor Harvard University


Many feats of the brain seem amazingly simple on the surface but are found to require complex neural machinery when examined in depth. For example, organisms as advanced as humans and as simple as honey bees enjoy fantastic object vision. We can pick out a pair of scissors from a cluttered desk. Fantastic ? Grasping a pair scissors ? Yes, even after half a century of research, robots can recognize objects only under very specialized conditions — if at all. • Michael Herzog Professor EPFL


Vision has been the sense of neuroscience for centuries, initially in describing the gross structure of the brain and nervous system. Later, instruments were invented that extended its range so that microscopic details could be seen, cells could be stained and nerve impulses could be amplified. In the last decades vision has been replaced by visualization. Modern brain imaging techniques require visual mediation to render their results accessible, thereby rolling back our ignorance of brain function. • Nicholas J. Wade Emeritus Professor University of Dundee


The amazing performance of our brain is dramatically highlighted by the devastation wrought by brain disease. Dementia — the loss of our memories and intellect — is arguably the most disastrous of all illnesses. Losing our capacity to retain information and to interact with others means losing the very ingredients that define us as humans. And yet dementing illnesses are frighteningly frequent : They strike more than one-third of all people that reach the age of 85. Worse, there is no efficacious treatment against the most prevalent form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease. Determining what exactly goes wrong in illnesses such as Alzheimer’s or prion diseases is not only helping us to understand how the healthy brain functions, this scientific journey full of exciting surprises will eventually lead to medically important outcomes. • Adriano Aguzzi Professor University of Zurich



Current medicine has had such a marginal impact because the brain is not really amenable to the surgical interventions that work well for, say, knees or hearts. Everything is about to change : Human genomes, now sequenced easily, will lead to targeted genetic therapies for brain self-repair, and personalized stem cells are now made using just a few skin cells, facilitating in vitro tissue regrowth for advanced stage diseases, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinson’s. • Neville E. Sanjana Postdoctoral Fellow Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard


Life is nothing more — and nothing less — than a collection of chemicals that has managed to self-replicate. This could be taken as a nihilistic view, suggesting no real meaning or purpose for our lives. Over four billion years of day-by-day experimentation, however, life has developed a staggering and awe-inspiring complexity. The most complex thing in all is perhaps the human brain. With a hundred billion neurons and a million billion connections among them, the brain will be impossible to fully comprehend. And yet we are now at a point where functional patterns are becoming clear, at levels all the way from single proteins to circuits comprising many millions of neurons. This knowledge will help us treat serious disorders of the brain, but it will also change how humans and societies interact, and even change what we think it means to be human. • David P. Corey Professor Harvard University


A particular cluster of carbon-based molecules contrives to form a set of objects, namely neurons. They bring with them the rules of connectivity that result in their own intrinsic properties, becoming a source of shared activity, such that the ensuing newly born behavior enables this clustered structure, or nervous system, to respond to the universe in a unique way. In fact in such a way that it demands to know what constitutes its universe and even itself. Knowing the nature of these objects and their network will enable us to see how the simplest nervous system can avoid the flame while our most sophisticated computer would burn. • John C. Anderson Microscopist ETH and University of Zurich


The phenomenal mind is born out of the dizzyingly interbraided synaptic interactions that weave nerve cells together. The larger and the more complex these interactions, the more subtle its consciousness. These suppositions recall the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In his best-known work, ‘The Phenomenon of Man’, Teilhard writes evocatively of the rise of spirit in the universe by Darwinian evolution. His law of complexification asserts that matter has an inherent compulsion to assemble into ever more complex groupings. And complexity breeds consciousness. Teilhard was quite explicit about his panpsychism : “We are logically forced to assume the existence in rudimentary form… of some sort of psyche in every corpuscle, even in those (the mega-molecules and below) whose complexity is of such a low or modest order as to render it (the psyche) imperceptible.” Teilhard does not stop with molecules. No, the ascent of the spirit continues. This primitive form of consciousness becomes more highly developed in animals by the force of natural selection. In humans, awareness is turned in on itself, giving rise to self-awareness. Complexification is an ongoing process that now partakes of the noosphere, the interactions of myriads of human minds that are manifest in contemporary urban and technologically sophisticated societies. Again, Teilhard : “A glow ripples outward from the first spark of conscious reflection. The point of ignition grows larger. The fire spreads in ever widening circles till finally the whole planet is covered with incandescence. It is 14

really a new layer, the thinking layer, which […] has spread over and above the world of plants and animals. In other words, outside and above the biosphere there is the noosphere.” If there is ever a patron saint of the Internet, it should be Teilhard de Chardin. • Christof Koch Professor California Institute of Technology


In principle there are no limits on what we can learn about the brain : Every reasonable question can be answered. What hinders progress, however, is that most interesting brain functions seem to involve a complex apparatus of brain areas, cell types, neurotransmitters, synaptic connections, morphology, hormones, gene networks, environmental influences, and behavioral states. Progress is constrained by our ability to measure and understand interactions within this machinery. • Richard H. R. Hahnloser Professor ETH and University of Zurich


Your brain mediates everything you feel, sense, decide, and do. How can this little circuit compute all these things, and even more, make you aware of the experience of having a mind ? In order to understand, and engineer, this fascinating computer in our heads, we need to develop radical new technologies. • Edward S. Boyden Professor Massachusetts Institute of Technology


A nervous system is a terrifying thing — overwhelmingly complex and obstinately resistant to examination. As a young scientist jumping into the fray at the turn of the twenty-first century, it seems to me that nothing could be more exciting… or more daunting. • Carl E. Schoonover Doctoral Candidate Columbia University


“Know thyself.” I am my brain. My brain processes my sensory inputs, my behavioral outputs and computes all that lies between the two. Its architecture is not only the medium in which computations happen, but it defines the way they are performed. Understanding this physical structure is to understand myself. Can there be a more penetrating inquiry into our nature than to make the brain’s structure the focus of our research ? • Nuno M. M. A. da Costa Postdoctoral Fellow ETH and University of Zurich



The main motivation for research is curiosity about nature, an elementary human trait. Scientific methods extend the spectrum of our senses and analytical thinking extends our perception of the world. Like climbing unexplored mountains, research is strenuous but satisfying, and takes us to places that nobody has seen before. • Rainer W. Friedrich Group Leader Friedrich Miescher Institute, Basel


This past century neuroscience told us much about how individual cells in the brain — the neurons and glial cells — function. Research in the present century is focusing on how aggregates of neurons interact to underlie behavior. This is the province of systems neuroscience, which will lead us into cognitive science and the melding of the natural and social sciences. Along the way, we will obtain glimpses of the nature of ourselves and our place in the universe. • John E. Dowling Professor Harvard University


Artistic creativity is undoubtedly a product of the human mind, although the source of the intellectual pleasure produced by observing a work of art, and that of the artist who created it, is truly a mystery. While we do not need beauty or an æsthetic perception to survive, almost everything that the human being creates has a touch of art. Art appreciation and production seem to be uniquely human attributes and recently acquired cognitive abilities in the genus Homo. As our brains increased in complexity a spectacular development of cognitive and artistic skills became possible. Yet what is special about the human brain ? Why does art cause us mental pleasure ? • Javier DeFelipe Professor Cajal Institute, Madrid


An amazing feature of our brain is its capacity to create images. We can visualize almost anything from our past experience. We can even imagine something that we have never seen, as artists, architects, fashion designers and other creators can achieve. We have now considerable information on how the brain encodes visual perception, and even how this information is stored in neuronal networks. But how we produce an image without stimulation, something that we do every day even without being an artist, remains one of the great challenges of contemporary neuroscience. • Pierre J. Magistretti Professor EPFL


Our everyday emerging feelings involve complex brain processes at local and large neuronal scales. The incredible ability of our central nervous system to build up an integrated representation of emotion from the appraisal of the situation and from the body signals makes our species not only efficient in concrete interactions, such as those with the physical world, but also allows humans to interact socially and to elaborate decisions in a very complex world. Thus, decision-making and emotions are strongly intertwined and necessary for social survival. Would someone be able to live without emotions and feelings in our world ? • Didier Grandjean Professor University of Geneva


For a long time, mentioning in conversations that any behavior or thought must have a cause was considered either trivial or plain wrong. Neuroscientific results of the last decades have shown that this view is anything but trivial, and unlikely to be wrong. The more I learn about the brain, the more it looses its mystery, and the more it appears like a deterministic, predictable system. I do believe that free will is an illusion that helps us preserve a sense of purpose and control. • Daniel C. Kiper Group Leader ETH and University of Zurich


All of my neuroscience and technology will have been an effort to reconcile the moment in which the last cranial nerve is severed and the cerebrum falls inert into the palm of my left hand, with the memory of the man or the woman that lies supine on the autopsy table. • Jacopo Annese Professor University of California, San Diego


Memory shapes our individuality, our cultural heritage, our creativity. It is the essence of mankind. Without memory, time loses its meaning : The past is gone, the present fades as quickly as it is lived and the future is unpredictable. Researching on brain and memory mechanisms feels like looking at the dust grains which constitute us. • Nicolas Toni Professor University of Lausanne


We are at the threshold of scientifically understanding the human brain. This only happens once : Before that moment it is a mystery, after that moment we will know ourselves better than any previous generation. What impact will this have on our relationships with each other and on the social structures that we have created ? • Terrence J. Sejnowski Professor The Salk Institute, La Jolla


This booklet is published on the occasion of the global ‘Brain Awareness Week’ from March 14 – 20, 2011, and accompanies the exhibition ‘Neural Architectures’ at swissnex San Francisco and the ‘BrainFair’ in Zurich. Editor, concept, direction : Benjamin Bollmann Graphic Design : Aurèle Sack Typeface : AS Blond This project was supported by swissnex San Francisco together with the Neuroscience Center Zurich (ETH and University of Zurich). swissnex San Francisco is a platform for the exchange of knowledge and ideas in science, education, art, and innovation. It is an initiative of Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Education and Research (SER), managed in cooperation with the Department of Foreign Affairs as an annex of the Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco. ( Special thanks to all scientists who enthusiastically participated in this project ; Noémie Enz, Luc Meier, the INI, the ZNZ, Felix Stricker, Wolfgang Knecht, JRP|Ringier’s team, Ryan Cordell, Tarek Adam, Benjamin Gehrig and Julia Stricker. © 2011 the respective authors for all texts and images. © 1989 MIT Press, ‘Recollections of My Life’ by Santagio Ramón y Cajal , for the quote on the back cover. Printed in Europe ISBN 978-3-033-02832-6


Neural Insights  

Short texts from world-renowned brain scientists. Originally appeared in the booklet "Neural Insights: Words and Images by Brain Scientists"