Interview with Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman

Dr. Gerald Edelman died on May 17, 2014. This interview appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Ursinus Magazine.

Neuroscience Researcher and Ursinus Graduate

A member of the Class of 1950, Dr. Gerald Edelman received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on antibodies, which transformed our understanding of the immune response. His subsequent work led to the discovery of cell adhesion molecules (CAMs), which have been found to guide the fundamental processes by which an animal achieves its shape and form and by which nervous systems are built. To understand higher brain functions, Edelman and his colleagues constructed a series of mobile devices with simulated brains. These brain-based devices (BBDs) were shown to be capable of learning, operant conditioning, and episodic memory. Dr. Edelman has also formulated a detailed theory to explain the development and organization of higher brain functions. This theory was presented in his volume “Neural Darwinism” (Basic Books, New York, 1987).  More recently, he described a theory of consciousness in his book “Wider Than The Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness” (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004). His latest book, “Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge” (Yale University Press), appeared in October 2006. Dr. Edelman is Founding Director of The Neurosciences Institute. Separately, he is professor at The Scripps Research Institute and chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at that institution. Since 1981, over 900 scientists from 140 institutions and 24 countries have participated in workshops, conferences and courses at the The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California.

What will be the biggest breakthrough in the field of brain studies that we can hope to experience within the next decade?

Well, all prediction is hazardous except in nuclear physics. So I wouldn’t say there’s a single one. There are areas where I think some breakthrough will be extremely important. A practical one is that diagnostic methods are being improved in a remarkable way.  And that’s very important in diseases like Alzheimer’s, where you otherwise rely upon history rather than specific facts and techniques.  As a result of improvement in imaging devices, we can improve that inquiry and get a diagnosis earlier in the disease, so we can do something about it.

The other promising area has to do with the problems relating to motor control.  How in fact do you wiggle fingers?  How does the brain’s connection with your body help you pay attention to things?  Presently, in neuroscience the studies of motor control still lack a satisfactory analysis of how we actually regulate, remember, and use motor commands to tell our body what to do.

The third breakthrough, I expect, is even more ‘way out,’ and that’s something we are working on. Is it possible to construct a conscious artifact when we understand enough about consciousness to embed it in a device?  Now that sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it?  But it’s something that I’m indulging in, late in my life.

Do you think that the findings in genetics will come into play in the future?

Yes. However, a single-minded approach that has to do mainly with the statistics of gene variation will not work in all likelihood.  Because it turns out that it’s not a situation in which we have one gene, one protein, one disease. Indeed, there are some specific diseases that are evoked by different combinations of genes in
different people.   Evolution is so rich, it really doesn’t care too much about how selection occurs. And that makes our job of understanding rich but also sometimes confusing.

What has most surprised you about your research?

First of all, how much there is to be done. It’s amazing. If you look, for example, at the cortex of the brain, which is the wrinkled structure you will see in the usual popular diagrams, we are talking about a structure that has at least thirty billion nerve cells or neurons, and one million billion connections.  If you count one connection or synapse per second, you will just finish counting them thirty-two million years later.  That’s not doing anything but counting them. It doesn’t tell you about all the possible combinations of connection paths. And if you look at that, it’s awe inspiring.  It far beats astronomy in terms of the numbers involved.  So there’s a lot to be done.  That is one of the various surprises I had after moving to brain science from a relatively simple field called immunology.

What is your vision for The Neurosciences Institute and the projects that excite you the most right now?

My vision for The Neurosciences Institute has not changed; I wish to have a place in which talented young people can, in fact, be free of too many bureaucratic burdens, so that they can be imaginative. There’s a wonderful essay by Van’t Hoff, who was much maligned by other chemists in the late 19th century, because he thought of chemistry as being a matter of shape. And in fact, he finally turned out to be correct and was given the first Nobel Prize in chemistry. He produced a wonderful article called Imagination in Science. In it, he said he wanted to talk about science as imagination in the service of the verifiable truth. He wanted to talk mostly about imagination, not verification. When he considered imagination, he wanted to find out how ‘crazy’ some imaginative scientists were. I thought that was rather a beautiful notion. Crazy is a metaphor for saying, be free to try out things and don’t just be experts.  That’s the vision I have for the Institute.  Of course, one pays for that vision because it’s not one which is commonly supported in present times.

The projects I am most excited about have to do with two areas.  One concerns building a conscious artifact.  Is it possible to find out what consciousness is about in the brain, beyond the philosopher’s description?  And second of all, I want to learn a little bit more about learning in the invertebrate kingdom – for example, in the octopus species.  Those are invertebrates that I think may be revealing.

The second interest is a little crazy because one might say why not just study people?  Well in considering the evolution of species, you never know where your next idea is going to come from.

Can you define the relationship between music and the brain?

We have people who are doing that here at the Institute. What we found out is, when you give a simple sequence of notes or beats that are temporally regular, you can notice responses in the parts of the brain that involve auditory cortex – the hearing part. Those parts line up, but so do the ones that have to do with motor control.  So if you give a human subject a series of equally spaced taps, and then you ask them to emphasize the first or the second in their mind, you can actually watch the motor centers of the brain light up.

The fact is, that the frontiers of music and the structure of speech are handled in different parts of the brain.  Some people believe that the study of responses to music in the brain is a royal road to understanding language. That is one thing we have that’s unique; no other species has a true language. Snowball is the name of a parrot we have studied here at the Institute.  We once thought that the ability to synchronize responses to any rhythm was something unique to human beings.  But it turns out that’s wrong.  In fact, our colleagues here have discovered that for Snowball there’s no rhythmic combination of jazz that she doesn’t dance to, even syncopated jazz. That finding is really worth showing your students as a warning against human arrogance.

Do you still play the violin?

I haven’t practiced the violin in quite a long time because I find, unlike a cheerful amateur, that once you’ve been professionally trained, you can play in tune but you won’t be playing music unless you practice for six months.

What advice would you give a small liberal arts college today about teaching science or preparing scientists?

I would say to faculty, don’t emphasize the lectures but rather emphasize the extraordinary challenges in scientific research. Consider the kinds of thinking you have to apply to those challenges when you’re trying to create, discover, or prove something. Set the students up so that they appreciate the extraordinary challenges that are involved in critical thinking.

When I went to Ursinus, it was a preparatory school for two careers: religion and medicine. What’s happened in John Strassburger’s day, as you well know, and now with Bobby Fong taking on the presidency, is that it has been transformed into a truly deep liberal arts organization, which I think is a wonderful thing.  It relates very well, I think, to what I said about language and science.

If you select smart kids, it doesn’t matter that they aren’t going to, say Berkeley, where you have a B.S. degree and following that you stay to get a Ph.D.  At such a university, the paths are all linked in some way, a way that you cannot achieve at a liberal arts college like Haverford or Swarthmore or Ursinus. Besides giving students the idea that you must be imaginative in science, it’s important for students to see what the constrictions are on the actual performance of research. At Berkeley, you don’t have to worry about that, because they’re all a bunch of hot shots and specialists.  At Ursinus, you couldn’t possibly afford to do that.  But if your students are smart enough, they can pick up the professional issues later.

It’s very encouraging and exciting that Ursinus has expanded its horizons as a liberal arts college.  And that’s what I found when I met Bobby Fong – he resonates enormously to this idea.  It’s not an idea that’s easy to realize.  Given the economics of our time – it’s a wide open challenge. It’s certainly a worthy one.