Thursday, June 28th, 2018

From the Inside: The Brain and Computation

by Laurenz Wiskott, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

The human brain has about 100,000,000,000 neurons (the elementary units of information processing in the brain), with 100,000,000,000,000 synapses (the contacts through which neurons communicate). Lined up end-to-end, the axons of a single brain (the "cables" between neurons) would go around the earth 2.5 times. The brain is the most complex organ we know of, and is subject to extensive research. The annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience counts about 30,000 participants each year. A better understanding of the human brain might help cure mental illness, build intelligent and flexible machines, or reveal the nature of consciousness. These are all far-reaching goals, but steady progress is being made. And experimental techniques have developed at such a fast pace that the amount of neural data being recorded is becoming increasingly difficult to analyze and understand.

Computational Neuroscience (CNS) is the subdiscipline that applies computational methods to neuroscience for modeling and data analysis. In data analysis, one tries to discover structure in increasingly extensive experimental data and make it interpretable; in modeling, one tries to build artificial systems – usually some kind of artificial neural network – that reproduce and thereby explain the behavior of the brain or a small substructure of it. There is quite a bit of overlap between CNS and the field of Machine Learning (ML), which is likewise concerned with analyzing large amounts of data and building intelligent machines (although typically not related to neuroscience).

The spring 2018 Simons Institute program on The Brain and Computation brought together experimental and computational neuroscientists as well as researchers from machine learning to collaborate on key topics. The very interdisciplinary nature of brain research definitely calls for that. But how do you get 80 scientists from all over the world to exchange ideas and collaborate? Well, the successful strategy of the Simons Institute is a mixture of various components: numerous interaction areas with whiteboards, daily tea at 3:30 pm, several one-week workshops, a weekly program seminar, interest groups on various topics, and a social committee of scientists that organized board game evenings, hikes, music evenings, and an Argentine Tango lesson. The stimulating environment of the UC Berkeley university campus adds to that. It is really a lot about atmosphere and opportunities – an atmosphere that fosters interaction, and plenty of opportunities to engage. I feel the Simons Institute has managed very well to stimulate all this, with nice architecture with a lot of inviting open spaces for communication, helpful and friendly staff (helping you patiently with all relevant paperwork, lending bikes for free, reviving dead laptops, giving many hints about interesting talks and activities, etc.), and interesting researchers coming together who have enough overlap to benefit from each other.

One interesting element of the program was the participation of a number of visitors at all levels of seniority who had not had much contact with neuroscience previously. I imagine that this program was a fantastic entree for them into an exciting field of research. Within a short period of time, they gained exposure to a wide range of topics and got up-to-speed to do serious research. In addition, they contributed greatly to the discussions by their comments and questions, which were often to-the-point, and added new perspectives on issues where established researchers might have become too settled on one interpretation.

Personally, I profited from my stay very much. I got a lot of inspiration from the interaction with my fellow scientists. And I enjoyed the friendly, open atmosphere, and opportunity to (re)connect to colleagues, some of whom I only knew from their publications. Furthermore, being away from my home institute, I was largely freed from daily routine, and had much more time than usual to read, think, write, and discuss. It almost felt like being a postdoc again, which was one of the most pleasurable times I've had as a researcher. I am very grateful to the Simons Foundation and the staff at the Simons Institute for giving me this opportunity.

For an in-depth report on the scientific content of the Spring 2018 program on The Brain and Computation, read the feature article by Simons Institute Journalist in Residence, Brian Hayes. 

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