Prof. Nancy Kanwisher (MIT)
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Abstract: The last 20 years of brain imaging research has revealed the functional organization of the human brain in glorious detail. This work has identified a set of regions of the cortex, each of which is specifically engaged in a particular mental task, like the recognition of faces and places, perceiving speech sounds, understanding the meaning of a sentence, and thinking about another person’s thoughts. Other brain regions play a more general role in intelligence, getting engaged when we perform nearly any difficult mental task at all. Each of these regions is present, in approximately the same location, in every normal person. I like to think of this initial rough sketch of the functional organization of the brain as a diagram of the major components of the human mind, a kind of picture of who we are as perceivers and thinkers. But at the same time this new map is just the barest beginning, revealing a vast landscape of unanswered questions. What other specialized regions exist in the cortex, and what are they specialized for? What exactly is computed and represented in each region? What are the structural connections of each region, and how does information flow among them? How do these regions arise in development, and how much of the organization of the brain is specified at birth? How did brain regions specialized for uniquely human mental abilities evolve? Perhaps most fundamentally, why, from a computational point of view, is the brain organized the way it is, with this combination of highly specialized brain regions, along with very general-purpose systems? These open questions are much harder to answer, but I will mention a few tantalizing glimmers that are beginning to emerge from labs around the world.
Biographical Sketch: Nancy Kanwisher
Nancy Kanwisher received her B.S. and Ph.D. from MIT, working with Professor Molly Potter. After a postdoc as a MacArthur Fellow in Peace and International Security, and a second postdoc in the lab of Anne Treisman at UC Berkeley, she held faculty positions at UCLA and then Harvard, before returning to MIT in 1997, where she is now an Investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, a faculty member in the Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences, and a member of the Center for Minds, Brains, and Machines. Kanwisher uses brain imaging and other methods to discover the functional organization of the human brain as a window into the architecture of the mind. Kanwisher has received the Troland Award, the Golden Brain Award, the Carvalho-Heineken Prize, and the 2022 National Academy of Sciences Neurosciences Award. She was named a MacVicar Faculty Fellow, MIT’s highest teaching recognition. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. You can view her short lectures about human cognitive neuroscience for lay audiences and newcomers to the field here and her undergraduate course The Human Brain here.
This lecture is sponsored by the Bisan Center for Research and Development, Scientists for Palestine and the Center for Palestinian Studies of Columbia University