My Conversation with Ed Boyden, MIT neuroscientist

Here is the transcript and audio, highly recommended, and for background here is Ed’s Wikipedia page.  Here is one relevant bit for context:

COWEN: You’ve trained in chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, and neuroscience, correct?

BOYDEN: Yeah, I started college at 14, and I focused on chemistry for two years, and then I transferred to MIT, where then I switched into physics and electrical engineering, and that’s when I worked on quantum computing.

COWEN: Five areas, actually. Maybe more.

BOYDEN: Guess so.

COWEN: Should more people do that? Not the median student, but more people?

BOYDEN: It’s a good question.


COWEN: Are we less creative if all the parts of our mind become allies? Maybe I’m afraid this will happen to me, that I have rebellious parts of my mind, and they force me to do more interesting things, or they introduce randomness or variety into my life.

BOYDEN: This is a question that I think is going to become more and more urgent as neurotechnology advances. Already there are questions about attention-focusing drugs like Ritalin or Adderall. Maybe they make people more focused, but are you sacrificing some of the wandering and creativity that might exist in the brain and be very important for not only personal productivity but the future of humanity?

I think what we’re realizing is that when you intervene with the brain, even with brain stimulation, you can cause unpredictable side effects. For example, there’s a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. That’s actually an FDA-approved site for stimulation with noninvasive magnetic pulses to treat depression. But patients, when they’re stimulated here . . . People have done studies. It can also change things like trust. It can change things like driving ability.

There’s only so many brain regions, but there’s millions of things we do. Of course, intervening with one region might change many things.


COWEN: What kind of students are you likely to hire that your peers would not hire?

BOYDEN: Well, I really try to get to know people at a deep level over a long period of time, and then to see how their unique background and interests might change the field for the better.

I have people in my group who are professional neurosurgeons, and then, as I mentioned, I have college dropouts, and I have people who . . . We recently published a paper where we ran the brain expansion process in reverse. So take the baby diaper polymer, add water to expand it, and then you can basically laser-print stuff inside of it, and then collapse it down, and you get a piece of nanotechnology.

The co–first author of that paper doesn’t have a scientific laboratory background. He was a professional photographer before he joined my group. But we started talking, and it turns out, if you’re a professional photographer, you know a lot of very practical chemistry. It turns out that our big demo — and why the paper got so much attention — was we made metal nanowires, and the way we did it was using a chemistry not unlike what you do in photography, which is a silver chemistry.

And this:

COWEN: Let’s say you had $10 billion or $20 billion a year, and you would control your own agency, and you were starting all over again, but current institutions stay in place. What would you do with it? How would you structure your grants? You’re in charge. You’re the board. You do it.


COWEN: If you’re designing architecture for science, what do you do? What do you change? What would you improve? Because presumably most of it is not designed for science. Maybe none of it is.

BOYDEN: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually, lately. There are different philosophies, like “We should have open offices so everybody can see and talk to each other.” Or “That’s wrong. You should have closed spaces so people can think and have quiet time.” What I think is actually quite interesting is this concept that maybe neither is the right approach. You might want to think about having sort of an ecosystem of environments.

My group — we’re partly over at the Media Lab, which has a lot of very open environments, and our other part of the group is in a classical sort of neuroscience laboratory with offices and small rooms where we park microscopes and stuff like that. I actually get a lot of productivity out of switching environments in a deliberate way.

There is much more of interest at the link.


"Are we less creative if all the parts of our mind become allies?"
The recent Robert Lowell biography dealt with this issue and the answer, unfortunately, was yes.
Patty Duke won an Emmy, an Oscar and a Golden Globe before she went on lithium. Nothing after. But she was SAG president, so I guess it's a trade-off.

"There is much more of interest at the link."

A cynic might wonder whether you picked out the boring bits to quote.

He did not write, "There is much of more interest at the link," which would imply that he did indeed share the boring bits.
But "There is much more of interest at the link" suggests that, while he cherry-picked some of the good stuff, there is even more good stuff to be found in the whole piece.

Have neuroscience and studies of brain physiology begun to tell us anything about the role of volition in cognition?

From TC's summary I seem to detect a suspicion that cognition is function of volition, not vice versa.

If TC is keen to characterize vague qualities of "mind" (surprised to see this term still in academic use), some practicing neuroscientist may care to specify the precise lineaments of "will".

The Wall Street Journal recently had a good article on the brain, "The Machines That Will Read Your Mind" .

Excellent. Thanks for this, and more like this, please. One of his "short takes" brought to mind Malcolm Gladwell's call for "more tinkerers" in his podcast with Ezra Klein.

Let's be charitable, and assume the cut and pasting was less than perfect for the block quote that only contains the words of Prof. Cowen.

I've never known you to be charitable towards our hosts. Furthermore, the use of the phrase in this context seems to be mere passive aggressiveness.

It's how I pretend I pretend I'm not just trolling this place like a bored 15 year old. Please, I deserve your pity rather than scorn.

Ich bin beeindruckt - really, a bit more effort, and maybe a couple of people would be fooled. Not worth pity or scorn, nor does it provide even a bit of vapid amusement.

What's German for the truth hurts?

Well, one could presume that if it were actually a mistake, it would have been corrected by now.

Or if you prefer, I can use this formulation instead - 'A cynic might wonder whether you picked out only your bits to quote.'

Good God man. Now only a cynic understands the concept of a 'teaser'?

Get a grip.

Are you implying that Tyler only wants to read or share his own words?

Inspiring stuff. And then there's the massive brain-altering experiment that is FB and Twitter...


It's early still but this may be the thread winner.

I do wonder what the social media experiment tells us about ourselves. Shooting from the hip (uh oh, I hope the orange clock doesn't jump on the word 'shooting') I'd say that the experiment shows we're hopelessly tribal.

He ran to the safe place, the laboratory.
I been in the lab, it is great, you only have to produce a white paper, you can keep the lab in a politically incorrect mess, no one cares.

I assume you meant "politically incorrect" mess. Sorry they fired you. Boyden, to his credit, has a ton of patents says Google Patent. I think the one about "Active tremor control in surgical instruments" looks very marketable, if you find the right sponsor.

Amusing how he side stepped all of Tyler’s under/overrated questions. Maybe his mind doesn’t work that way?

I fan-blogged the bit about the pace of scientific progress:

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