It's All About the Brain

A neuroscientist looks at how his field intersects with almost everything else.

September/October 2010

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It's All About the Brain

Jason Schneider

It almost sounds as if neuroscientist William Newsome sat down in 1980, turned his chair toward what looked vaguely like 2010 and said to himself, "I'll do this until then." And for 30 years—the past 22 at Stanford—he guarded as best he could against every distraction from three priorities: his research, his family and service to the academic community.

But get ready: He's on the verge of at least a swivel.

In June, Newsome, professor of neurobiology at the School of Medicine, learned he was co-winner of the Champalimaud Vision Award, an international honor worth more than $600,000 to each designee's laboratory. Newsome, 58, shared the award with New York University professor J. Anthony Movshon for their work on how the brain reconstructs images, as well as for fostering new research into the links between visual perception and decision making.

"Basically, for 30 years, I've gone flat out running this kind of neurophysiology and behavior research lab," says Newsome, noting how carefully he weighed any other professional time commitment. Always intriguing, but always forced to the margins of his attention, were the burgeoning implications of neuroscience for law, economics, education, art—even philosophy and religion. "I'm thinking about making a shift now. How can I bring my expertise as a neuroscientist to shape the interactions between neuroscience and all these other areas of the University and all of these other fields?"

The issues range from what brain scans might mean as legal evidence, or how educational systems handle learning disabilities, to questions about "the core of our humanness," says Newsome. "What is the relationship between the study of our brains as machines and the internal sense we have of being free agents?"

Figuring out how to explore those things may or may not be as complicated as his joint efforts with Movshon to pinpoint how neurons in the middle temporal lobe compute motion perception. But it's certainly going to be challenging, partly because his work entails many ongoing obligations. He's considering a sabbatical for the 2011-12 academic year ("I need time to read, and I need time to think.")

In the meantime, he's trying to create opportunities for other scholars along the same lines he's contemplating. A former chair of the department of neurobiology and former director of the neurosciences graduate program, Newsome directs the NeuroVentures initiative within Bio-X, a program focused on interdisciplinary research in biology and medicine.

"We want to be a program that bridges schools and is a part of the humanities and sciences, a part of engineering, a part of medicine, and ultimately we want to be a part of law, a part of business, education—all of these disciplines. We want to galvanize new groupings of faculty who are interested in brain research, interpreted broadly, but who perhaps haven't figured out how to make those connections yet for their research."

Newsome and two other Stanford scholars, law professor Hank Greely and psychology professor Anthony Wagner, are part of the MacArthur Foundation's Law and Neuroscience Project, which brings together scientists, philosophers, lawyers and judges to scrutinize public policy and legal issues. Their meetings heightened Newsome's awareness of how much commitment it will take to make a serious impact on neuroscience as it spills everywhere into daily life.

"One of the things I don't like," he says forcefully, "is scientists of any stripe making pronouncements on some other field or some other aspect of intellectual or personal endeavor that they really don't know much about. And they're given outsized attention because they're famous scientists, as though being a famous scientist gives you special authority to make pronouncements. I don't want to be that kind of scientist. I want to be the kind that respects the accomplishments, traditions and scholarship of other fields."

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