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Why I don't think the brain is a computer


The Neurosciences Research Program
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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The Neurosciences Research Program, which I mentioned briefly before, was started by Frank Schmitt who was a great scientific impresario at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. He was a person who was interested in the biophysics of collagen – of these long molecules and muscle and things of that kind – but whose brother, by the way, became very famous because he invented a circuit called the Schmitt trigger; was also interested in neuroscience and Frank had the imagination to... and analytic power to see that neuroscience, which was not called that then, was not in good shape because the anatomists were not talking to the physiologists, the physiologists weren't talking to the chemists, etc., etc. And so he started this unusual organization called the Neurosciences Research Program, which was housed in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Jamaica Plain, which was in a lovely French kind of mansion – you could have been in the Loire Valley. And I think MIT was rather glad to get Frank out of their hair for this purpose. But whatever is the case, he had the imagination of conceiving of a kind of small academy, the NRP, which would consist of people in all kinds of sciences interested in the brain, not just any specialty but a whole bunch of thinkers who were interested in the brain, and so it ranged very widely. For example, why would they call me, recognised as an immunologist, to join them?

Well, I found out for the same reasons you imply – namely that ideas come across boundaries, and sometimes the best ideas come across boundaries, when you think of two different things interacting. And so that was a remarkable time. It was an awful lot of fun to listen to people. And the contrast with the present is worth making – namely in the present case where I'm now chairman of it, I've inherited it; people are very expert but a little more cautious. In those days people weren't all that expert but there was an enormous amount of fun to hear somebody like Manfred Eigen describe what goes on in what some people call the soul in terms of fast chemical reactions, without knowing anything about synapses at the time. In any case, that interest and my work on the nervous system which became very clear that during embryogenesis nerve cells or neurons that fire together wired together – in other words they work epigenetically. Those two things tended to converge. And the more and more I thought about it, the more and more I thought: no way the brain can be a computer. It just doesn't make any sense. If you look at the biology of it, it just doesn't make any sense. I'll come back to that too. But first I must say that, at the time, the word neurosciences had not yet even been invented. I learned later by dint of an honorary degree ceremony in Sardinia, of all things, in Cagliari where I reserved a degree... did I say reserved? No, deserved... no, I got a degree; I learned that in fact the Italians had invented the word neuroscience, but I never told Frank that – he would have been dashed. In any case, it was a remarkable group of people: open and willing to consider way out things in a way that again was a little bit like immunology at that golden period... golden age.

[Q] Who were some of the others?

Well, there were... there's Francis-Vernon Mountcastle, a very great neurophysiologist; Floyd Bloom, who then became later on head of... editor of Science magazine and not neuropharmacologist extraordinaire, etc. So there was this just great expanse of different people, including some, for instance very great physical chemists like Lars Onsager, who is one of the giant figures of the last century.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: Neurosciences Research Program, MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Jamaica Plain, Science, Frank Schmitt, Manfred Eigen, Francis-Vernon Mountcastle, Floyd Bloom, Lars Onsager

Duration: 3 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008