Saturday, September 12, 2009

How the Brain Invents the Mind

Opening Remarks - How the Brain Invents the Mind
A lecture by Dr. Susan Hockfield Rebecca Saxe Ph.D. '03 June 6, 2009;
Running Time: 1:39:22




About the Lecture
In trying financial times, Susan Hockfield remains optimistic and committed to pursuing MIT’s massive, multi-year initiatives in energy and life sciences. She prefaces her “whirlwind” tour of MIT for an alumni audience by referencing the campus-wide relief at the change in presidential administrations, which promises to make science and engineering more central, and to make “MIT values more mainstream.” If it indeed becomes “cool to be smart,” Hockfield believes MIT can count on taking a prominent national role in research, policy and education.


One key area in which MIT hopes to make a major contribution is sustainable energy. The MIT Energy Initiative, two years old, brings together faculty and students across all disciplines to develop a portfolio of new technologies (although the focus seems increasingly to fall on solar). Campus interest is so intense that the Institute has committed to a minor in energy, and it’s seeking five new professorships in the area. The other major enterprise involves fusing biological sciences with engineering, especially in the study of cancer. At the new Koch Institute, cancer biologists and engineers have already made “fundamental discoveries underlying new targeted cancer drugs,” and they are hard at work decoding the disease, and devising new methods for diagnosis and treatment.

Hockfield also candidly describes the impact of the economic downturn on the Institute, acknowledging that “most revenue streams have been compromised,” except for research. With the endowment down by 20-25%, departments across the board are making significant but strategic cuts for the next two to three years. MIT will not compromise on providing financial aid to needy students, a cost that understandably has risen in the past year, nor on hiring faculty. Hockfield hopes that private philanthropy will help MIT “preserve core strengths and values.” At the end of the recession, she says, “We want to come out with a leaner, stronger Institute.”

Fellow neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe outlines her research investigating the neural basis for a Theory of Mind -- how the human mind seems geared to “glean what others are thinking and feeling.” From her work with children and adults, Saxe has determined that there’s a very specific region of the brain -- the right temporal-parietal junction -- dedicated to thinking about how others think. This area lights up in the fMRI scanner when people read stories involving another person’s beliefs and moral judgments, but not when they digest other kinds of written material. The RTPJ develops this special function slowly (young children don’t have it), and Saxe has discovered that she can interfere with this region’s activities, altering her subjects’ sense of what constitutes morally permissible behavior. She’s exploring whether these distinct neural networks develop differently in children with autism, with the hope of finding therapies that might someday help treat the disorder.



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