Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology


by McCaffrey Pat

May 25th, 2005

Students, faculty and fans of cognitive science gathered last week in the churchlike setting of Harvard’s Andover Hall to hear from a polyglot assortment of philosophers, linguists, computer scientists, and biologists at the first annual Mind/Brain/Behavior graduate student conference, "The Nature of Thought."

With sunlight streaming through leaded glass windows under the high cathedral ceiling, the room seemed an apt venue for raising the awe-provoking question of how the flesh-and-blood structure of the human nervous system works to produce that mysterious mental activity we call thought. 

The conference, sponsored by the Mind/Brain/Behavior Interfaculty Initiative (MBB, http://mbb.harvard.edu), took attendees on a whirlwind tour of the world of research into cognition.  Graduate students and faculty from throughout the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Medical School, as well as from MIT, Tufts, and Boston University, heard talks on evolution and thought, language and thought, computers and thought, and the brain and thought.  Four faculty speakers and seven invited graduate students participated in four sessions held May 12 and 13. 

For biologists, some sessions felt like immersion courses in the unfamiliar tongues of philosophy or artificial intelligence.  "Some of the talks were very far from my thinking," says Hayan Yoon, one of the conference organizers and a fourth-year MCB graduate student in the lab of Catherine Dulac.  But Yoon, who works on tracing the neuronal circuits involved in smell, took in the lectures enthusiastically.  "They were all very interesting, and it helps to have a broader idea that my approach is just one out of so many approaches to understanding the brain."  

The MBB program was started in 1993 to foster communication among disparate disciplines—from philosophy to psychology to cognitive neuroscience—that all seek to understand how the brain works.  The problem of communication is not trivial. Researchers in these widely varying fields each develop their own methods, and their own highly specialized language. Much can get lost in translation across disciplinary borders. 

An MBB steering committee of graduate students from nine different Harvard departments started work on the conference last fall. "The challenge was to come up with a roster of speakers that would offer something for everyone, so that people from all the different disciplines would actually be interested," says Jacob Beck, philosophy graduate student and organizing committee head.  Once they had decided on the broad topics and enlisted faculty, the organizers solicited and reviewed abstracts from graduate students around Boston and beyond to fill the four sessions.   

The tour de cognition started in the land of philosophy, with an opening talk by Harvard visiting professor Peter Godfrey-Smith, who argued that understanding the evolution of human thought is a different problem than studying other physiological systems, like digestion or the immune system.  Instead of viewing cognition as just a more complicated evolutionary process of mutation and natural selection, he offered alternative models that allow for a broader view of this singular process. Acknowledging the possibility of nongenetic inheritance of learned traits, and recognizing that humans use memory tools as extensions of our brain, for example, may be important to understanding the evolution of thought.  Following Godfrey-Smith, graduate student Mark Bauer of the University of North Carolina spoke about the importance of considering environment when evaluating inherited traits in evolutionary studies, and MIT’s Christos Kapoutsis had audience members stacking paper cups in a game to explore how our brains process mathematical  proofs versus metaphoric explanations. 

Next it was on to psychology, where local linguistics guru, psychology professor, and MBB member Steven Pinker treated the students to a lively talk on language and thought.  Early ideas that words were the currency of human thought have given way to the current view, says Pinker, that "language is the tip of the iceberg of thought."  To make the point Pinker analyzed the hackneyed come-on line, "Would you like to come up and see my etchings?"  Almost everyone understands this to be more than an invitation to an art show, and Pinker’s engaging explanation of how we use indirect speech to navigate the shoals of interpersonal relationships had many in the audience smiling in self-recognition.   The graduate student speakers, Elidea Bernardino of Boston University and Carlos Montemayor of Rutgers, covered a secret sign language shared by deaf twins and a philosophical consideration of what our internal language of thought might look like. 

The third session explored the link between thought and communication, as computer science professor Stuart Shieber of Harvard revisited the well-known test of artificial intelligence first proposed in 1950 by Alan Turing.  If a computer can fool a human examiner into thinking he is talking to another person, said Turing, then the machine is thinking. But, Shieber explained, any computer with enough time and memory could pass the Turing test (think monkeys and typewriters).  The real hurdle, he explained, will be for a computer to engage in sensible real-time dinner-table conversation with access to a limited amount of memory storage. Tufts student D. Sculley rounded out the session with a talk on new algorithms for machine learning. 

For biologists in the audience, the final session was like regaining terra firma, when neuroscience professor Earl Miller from MIT flashed up his first PowerPoint slide showing an actual brain.  Miller described his work on understanding the executive function of brain regions that coordinate thought and action.  In his case, monkeys were trained to move their eyes left or right on cue to get an apple juice treat.  By simultaneously recording from an array of electrodes while monkeys were learning and performing, Miller mapped a neural network involved in cognitive control.  Martin Monti of Princeton University and Chiyoko Kobayashi of Cornell closed out the session, and the conference, with talks on the use of  functional magnetic resonance imaging to study how the brain distributes the computing load in psychological processes like deductive inference and theory of mind.  

"The first aim of this conference was to promote interaction among graduate students from Harvard and from various schools in the Boston area, and the second was to learn about the nature of thought from scholars doing cutting-edge research," says organizer Beck.  Judging by the lively discussion after each session, and the reports of a highly enjoyable students-only dinner excursion on Thursday night, the conference was a success on both counts.  All that is left now is for next year’s student committee to pick up the baton and continue this new tradition.