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Why I’m a computational neuroscientist

October 12, 2011

Have you ever met someone new only to feel like you’ve known her all your life? Did you fall in love? I’m lucky enough to have experienced this twice: first with my wife and then with computational neuroscience. OK, not exactly the same, but both involved that feeling of instantly identifying with someone or something you never really knew before. I spent most of my life being fascinated with computers and biology. Yet they seemed incredibly unrelated. As a child, I thought computer programming was a source of limitless power. I also collected countless animals near my home, amazed by the mysterious behavior of even the simplest of animals. I eventually found something that seemed like it should satisfy me: artificial intelligence (AI) – programs and circuits that mimic biology. Perfect, right? Not quite.

My flirtations with AI kept getting more serious, but something always seemed wrong. Why did the AI solutions always seem to fall short? Why was something as simple as the movement of an insect so hard to achieve? Was there a different approach? Then I met AI’s sister: computational neuroscience (CNS). AI and I quickly became “just friends”. One difference between AI and CNS is that AI mainly wants to build machines, whereas CNS wants to understand the biological nervous system. I still envisioned making a brain out of a computer, but I suddenly saw a different way to do it. I was trained as an engineer, so breaking up with AI felt a little awkward, especially since I wasn’t exactly a card-carrying biologist.

I had a lot to learn, not just about the biology but also about modeling. Once again though, everything clicked. Simulating a biological system on a computer gives me the same intoxicating feeling I had when I was 11 years old and wrote my first computer program. At times it feels like a limitless power, just waiting to be tapped. In my soul, I’m still an engineer who simply wants to understand how something works so that I can devise my own creations with that knowledge. Like many things in nature, the nervous system is still beyond our complete comprehension. That doesn’t discourage me, however. It actually makes it all the more exciting.


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