Cutting through the mind

Cheryl Stimpson carefully pulls a mechanical razor toward her, shaving off a bit of brain tissue. Next door, Muhammad Spocter places a glass slide under a microscope and observes purple dots suspended in white mass on his computer screen.

This is GW’s Mind-Brain Institute, whose charter was approved only a few weeks ago. It is the product of an interdisciplinary effort to study the evolution of human reasoning. Under this banner, researchers with backgrounds in anthropology, philosophy, psychology, speech and hearing sciences and engineering are combining their knowledge to better grasp the mechanics of thought.

Stimpson and Spocter are part of a team mapping the symmetry between the hemispheres of chimp brains.

The multidimensional nature of the task is what attracted Marietta Dindo, a postdoctoral fellow in the philosophy department, to participate.

“A lot of times you’re focused on one narrow avenue and you don’t see the big picture, but if you’re able to work with other departments that have similar interests but a different approach, it allows you to explore things you wouldn’t otherwise have found out,” she said.

In line with this method are the various clusters that comprise the Mind-Brain Institute’s wide portfolio. The clusters study the brain’s relation to speech, thought and body movement and the evolution of the brain.

Chester Sherwood, the leader of the team studying chimp brains, has developed a course called “Mind, Brain and Evolution” with the help of two other professors.

The course, one of GW’s 700 series, will let professors showcase their research expertise and focus on neuroscience, evolutionary biology and philosophy of mind. Sherwood said he anticipates teaching students with a diverse set of interests.

Emphasizing the practicality of the interdisciplinary approach, he added, “It’s really the only way to make real progress on a question, otherwise you just end up counting the same stone and the same old nut.”

The institute is proposing a new minor in cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, which would be part of the philosophy department. It also provides students with a variety of research opportunities, such as studying chimpanzee brain scans or investigating social learning in humans.

The research will give students specialized knowledge that they might not otherwise acquire. Institute Director John Philbeck said working at the Mind-Brain Institute lends students an edge.

“This will give them a very unique and broad perspective on the mind-brain linkage – something that will make their training stand out and give them a competitive advantage in whatever they do after they leave us.”

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