Home Cellular science What is a brain? For Yale authors, conversation brings new clarity

What is a brain? For Yale authors, conversation brings new clarity


For a new booktwo Yale researchers and a colleague from Oxford take a new approach to exploring the interrelated complexities of the brain: they talk about it.

In “Body, Brain, Behavior: Three Views and a Conversation,” co-authored by Tamas Horvath and Joy Hirsch of Yale School of Medicine, and Zoltán Molnár, professor of developmental neuroscience at Oxford University, the three researchers each share a traditional chapter related to their disciplines: endocrine physiology, social neuroscience and developmental neuroscience. But the connection of the chapters is a series of transcripts of weekly conversations they held for two years.

Although initially intended to help them shape their individual chapters, the conversations ended up helping each of the authors understand the perspectives of others and see where their disciplines and research areas intersect. They decided to include the conversations in the hope that they would be as enlightening for readers as they were for themselves.

Horvath is the Jean and David W. Wallace Professor of Comparative Medicine, Professor of Neuroscience, and Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences. Hirsch is Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry, Professor of Comparative Medicine and Professor of Neuroscience.

Horvath and Hirsch recently sat down with Yale News to discuss the book and what it reveals about the human brain. The interview is edited for length.

You each contributed a chapter to the book. What did your chapters cover?

Joy Hirsch: I’m a systems neuroscientist, which means I look at the brain in terms of the large-scale neural circuitry that underlies behavior. I don’t look at the brain from a cellular or molecular perspective, but I look at the mechanisms inside the brain and how they relate to cognition.

The main methodology of systems neuroscience has been functional MRI neuroimaging, and over the past three decades we have gained incredible insights into the brain systems that underlie various cognitive behaviors. However, conventional neuroimaging methods do not interrogate the brain systems that underlie natural interpersonal interactions because only one brain can be studied at a time from inside the bore of a scanner. In other words, the neural systems that underlie living communicative behaviors, the social brain, cannot be studied by conventional methods, leaving a huge void in our knowledge of the brain and behavior.

We have developed an alternative technology called functional near-infrared spectroscopy for the new purpose of imaging the brains of two people simultaneously during natural interactions. My chapter is about what we have learned from these new approaches. It is the beginning of a new “science of two” that builds on our conventional techniques and our understanding of cognition, but extends it in the new direction of dynamic social interactions.

Tamas Horvath: My view is that the brain does not exist in isolation and should not and never has. And that if you want to understand the brain, you really have to understand how it integrates with the rest of the body and how information from the rest of the body is fundamentally crucial to the functioning of different parts of the brain.

One of the things I emphasize from my point of view is that the trajectory that neuroscience has taken over the past hundred years may not be the right paradigm to look at brain function, because the Majority of efforts have been to try to understand how the brain works from inside the brain. We take a different approach by saying that information from the brain, from the body – from the liver, from your fat, from your gut, from your muscles, etc. – play a crucial role in the orchestration of events in the brain. For example, to better understand schizophrenia, one must understand how these brain-periphery communications are orchestrated. And we argue that these processes are relevant and critical to all complex normal and maladaptive behaviors and brain functions.

How did the idea of ​​including your conversations come about?

Hires: Tamas presented our project to Zoltán in the hope that he could help us write this book. I didn’t know Zoltán and he didn’t know our ideas, so we had to start conversations around our topics. We ask a big question for all of us: what is a brain? Tamas has the idea that the brain is everything in the whole body that connects to it. My idea is that a brain is only half of a fundamental social unit. Zoltán’s idea is that the brain is a magnificent control system that develops through millions of years of evolutionary adjustments. We had a lot to tell each other.

These three points of view do not easily come together. However, the conversations began to guide our thinking, and connections between our research areas began to emerge. It was so exciting. We soon realized that it was our relatively “unplugged” conversations that led us to the intersections between these fundamental disciplines of neuroscience. We thought that if we recorded these conversations, they would guide us in the development of our chapters. This turned out to be wrong. However, in the end, we realized that the conversations had inspired and guided us in our understanding of how to think about the larger ideas that brought our disciplines together.

Horvat: And to be respectful of each other’s ideas instead of pontificating that the truth lies in the way I Look at this. And I think that’s one of the key things about this process is that nobody knows. And I think the more we talk about it, the more we will be able to understand, from different angles.

It’s really the conversational component that made us conceptualize our individual components and our overall view of neuroscience. So the conversational component was really what I think got us on the path to where we could actually do this book. They really stimulated us, made us think about things in a different way.

Who is the audience for this book and what do you hope they take away from it?

Horvat: I think this will mostly benefit people who want to learn more about neuroscience, physiology, and disease. For example, students, whether they are in high school, graduate school, or medical school.

Hires: This book transcends the specific disciplines of neuroscience and focuses on the mechanisms of interaction as a spark of creativity. He endorses conversation as a scientific tool that we can take seriously. Very often, scientists give credence to the random chat they had at the water cooler. “I had this brilliant idea when I ran into my friend, and we just sat down, and we drew these things on a napkin, and now here’s this beautiful scientific discovery.” What is retained is the end result and perhaps the memory of the water fountain moment, but the actual mechanism by which the idea was generated is left out.

What we have done in this book is to shine a spotlight on the value of conversation in science to find connections between different approaches and topics. I hope that by sharing our conversations on our particular topics, we will encourage our readers from all disciplines and at all stages of the academic ladder to do the same, and ultimately energize our collective thinking.