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

For a new book, two Yale researchers and a colleague from Oxford take a novel approach to explore the interrelated complexities of the brain: They talk it out.
The cover of “Body, Brain, Behavior: Three Views and a Conversation”

For a new book, two Yale researchers and a colleague from Oxford take a novel approach to explore the interrelated complexities of the brain: They talk it out.

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

Although initially intended to help them shape their individual chapters, the conversations ended up helping each of the authors understand the others’ perspectives and to see where their disciplines and areas of research intersect. They decided to include the conversations in the hopes that they would be as illuminating 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 the 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 that I look at the brain in terms of the large-scale neural circuits that underlie behavior. I don't look at the brain from a cellular or molecular point of view, but I look at mechanisms within the brain and how they relate to cognition.

The primary methodology for systems neuroscience has been functional MRI neuroimaging, and over the last three decades we have gained incredible insight into the systems of the brain that underlie various cognitive behaviors. However, conventional neuroimaging methods do not interrogate systems of the brain that underlie natural interpersonal interactions because only one brain can be studied at a time from inside the bore of a scanner. That is, the neural systems that underlie live communicative behaviors, the social brain, cannot be studied by conventional methods, leaving a huge gap in our knowledge about 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. This is the beginning of a new “science of two” that builds on our conventional techniques and understanding of cognition but expands it in the new direction of dynamic social interactions.

Tamas Horvath: My take is that the brain does not exist in isolation and should not and never did. And that if you want to understand the brain, you need to really understand how it fits with the rest of the body and how the information from the rest of the body is fundamentally crucial for how various parts of the brain function.

One of the things that I'm emphasizing from my perspective is that the trajectory that neuroscience took in the last hundred years may not be the right paradigm to look at how the brain works because the majority of the efforts have been to try to understand how the brain works from inside of the brain. We are taking a different approach by saying that information coming in towards the brain, from the body — from the liver, from your fat, from your gut, from your muscle, et cetera — plays a crucial role in orchestrating events in the brain. For example, in order to better understand schizophrenia, one needs to understand how these brain-periphery communications are orchestrated. And we argue that these processes are relevant and critical for all complex normal and maladaptive behaviors and brain functions.

How did the idea to include your conversations come about?

Hirsch: Tamas introduced Zoltán to our project with the hope that he could help us write this book. I didn't know Zoltán and he wasn't familiar with our ideas, so we had to start conversations around our topics. We put forth one big question for all of us: What is a brain? Tamas has the notion 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 by carrying millions of years of evolutionary fine-tuning. We had a lot to talk about.

These three views don't come together easily. However, the conversations began to direct our thinking, and connections between our areas of research 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 corner-stone disciplines in neuroscience. We thought that if we recorded these conversations that they would guide us in developing our chapters. This turned out not to be true. However, at the end, we realized that the conversations had inspired us and guided us in our understanding of how to think about the bigger ideas that brought our disciplines together.

Horvath: And to be respectful for one another's ideas instead of pontificating that the truth lies within the way I look at it. And I think that's one of the key aspects of this process, is that nobody knows. And I think the more we talk about it, the more we're going to be able to understand, coming from different angles.

It was really the conversation component that made us conceptualize our individual components and how we view neuroscience overall. So the conversation component was really what I think put us on the track where we could actually do this book. They really sparked 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?

Horvath: I think it will mostly benefit people who are interested in learning about neuroscience, physiology, and disease. For instance, students, whether they’re in high school, graduate school, or medical school.

Hirsch: This book transcends the specific disciplines in neuroscience and focuses on mechanisms of interaction as the spark for creativity. It endorses conversation as a tool in science that we can take seriously. So often, scientists give credit to the random discussion they had at the water cooler. “I got this bright idea when I happened to run into my friend, and we just happened to sit down, and we drew these things out on a napkin, and now here’s this beautiful scientific discovery.” What is retained is the final result and maybe the memory of the water-cooler moment, but the actual mechanism by which the idea was generated is dropped out of the picture.

What we have done in this book is to shine a spotlight of attention on the value of conversation in science to find connections between different approaches and topics. My hope is that by sharing our conversations about our particular topics we will encourage our readers from any discipline and stage in the academic ladder to do the same and ultimately to energize our collective thinking.

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Media Contact

Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643