Favorite writer/producer/director: Joss Whedon
Favorite Joss Whedon productions: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse (TV series); Serenity (2005 space Western film); Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008 Emmy-winning Internet tragicomedy miniseries)
So, you study how people see what they see?
Yes, though I'd say my primary question is how do we understand what we see—how do we "do" vision, how do we extract physical structure, beauty, value, and other meanings from visual images? Our previous work has focused on the neural code for complex object structure; our new projects address how that structural information is transformed into object meanings.
In 2010, you had an unusual collaboration with the Walters Art Museum called Beauty and the Brain.
Right. We wanted to study what measurable characteristics make an object more pleasing, and how those characteristics are processed by neurons in the brain. In the Walters collaboration, we examined what 3-D shape characteristics influenced human preference judgments about abstract sculptures by Jean Arp.
In your laboratory, you look at the question from inside the brain?
That's right, we record "action potentials"—electrical spikes emitted by individual neurons—from higher visual brain areas in monkeys performing visual tasks. You need to measure action potentials to understand how the brain processes visual information, in the same way you would need to track bits in a computer to understand how it performs multiplication.
How did you end up doing mind/brain research?
My academic path was somewhat tortuous. In college (Loyola, in Maryland) I was a biology major, but I was most inspired by courses in philosophy of mind, especially Aldo Tassi's courses on Edmund Husserl and phenomenology. I wanted to study the mind at the biological level but didn't get the right guidance at the time. As a result I floundered through several graduate experiences, beginning with a PhD program in pharmacology at Vanderbilt . . .
That wasn't the right field for you . . .
It was a great program, but I fell asleep in every single seminar—a clear sign I was in the wrong field. I left with a master's degree and went to law school. I didn't enjoy much of that besides constitutional law. I pretty much spent my 20s agonizing about what I should do with my life.
So, from philosophy to pharmacology to law, you ended up in neuroscience.
As soon as I started in the graduate program here, I was immediately enthralled; I went from depressed to ecstatic, like someone flipped a switch. I studied under Ken Johnson, a great computational and experimental neuroscientist whose ideas about the central importance of pattern coding (in vision and other senses) remain the specific inspiration for everything we study in my lab.
I have to ask about your Joss Whedon scholarship. In an essay called "Psychology Bad: Why Neuroscience Is the Darkest Art in the Latest Whedonverse," you praise him for dramatizing the relationship between mind and brain.
Yes. In Firefly, Serenity, and Dollhouse, Joss' heroines embody how all things human—our greatest vulnerabilities and our most miraculous faculties—are functions of the brain, and how much hidden power the brain has to reassert its humanity after injury and madness. It is the insane complexity of the brain (trillions of connections between neurons) that makes human existence so rich, profound, and unpredictable. Joss gets that.
As a vision scientist who saw Whedon's Avengers, what do you think of 3-D?
I like 3-D in movies when it is done well (e.g., Avatar). I think 3-D is a commercial failure because it is often done poorly, and there are so many other equally powerful depth cues besides stereovision. I remember one animated feature where the cars looked the size of matchbox models, presumably because stereo cues fixed their depth near the screen, forcing the perceived size of a huge cityscape into the frame of the movie theater. I think 3-D is barely noticeable most of the time, but, being a vision freak, I can't bear the idea of watching a movie in 2-D if it is available anywhere in 3-D.