Mapping the Mind

Deciphering the complex relationship between brain activity and the vastness of human intelligence and behavior is one of today’s most daunting and important scientific challenges.  Technologies such as high resolution fMRI, deep brain stimulation, nano-size and multi-array recording devices and optogenetics have led to the unprecedented ability to measure and manipulate brain activity from gene expression to the coordinated activity of brain circuits underlying complex skills such as language, memory, decision making, social networks and creativity.  The next major cutting-edge research questions for scholars involve the measurement and analysis of patterns of brain activity and how these patterns relate to complex behavior: in other words, “mapping the mind.”  These newest neuroscience frontiers seek to understand the nature of human intelligence in its broadest sense; they also promise valuable insights into the diagnosis and treatment of brain abnormalities.

A core focus of this effort will be in the area of computational, cognitive, and systems neuroscience, which will require new levels of sophistication in applying theory to the use of computational tools to make sense of the vast amounts of data now available about complex behavior and brain activity. Neuroscientists and cognitive scientists in Psychology, Biology, Linguistics, and Physics will serve as the foundation for this work, together with the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, the computational and systems neuroscience initiative, and colleagues in Medicine and Wharton.  

A critical related question at the interface of the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities is whether an understanding of the mind at the individual level will lead to a deeper understanding of the behaviors of a group.  By focusing on social behavior, decision-making, and the newer field of neuroeconomics, this initiative will establish SAS and Penn as an important source of insights into the philosophical questions of mind, identity, and social order and that will also necessitate the development of new analytical, computational, and experimental tools. This dimension of the initiative will promote linkages among SAS departments such as Economics, Psychology, Philosophy, and Political Science as well as with colleagues in Medicine, Wharton, Engineering, and Annenberg. This initiative will also extend our scholarship beyond the traditional boundaries of neuroscience, to enhanced understandings of individuals, societies, and their creations. It will lead to new approaches to cognitive, perceptual, and neural processes and human expression, and contribute to conceptions about embodied, enacted, and distributed cognition. 

Investments in this initiative will build on those made over the course of the School’s previous two strategic plans, including through the “Genes to Brains to Behavior” effort of the 2006 plan; they will also take place in a university with a deep tradition of interdisciplinarity in brain and human behavior dating to the pioneering Mahoney Institute of Neurological Sciences.  SAS has made large infrastructure investments to create a brain and behavior “zone” at the southwest edge of campus consisting of the Lynch Laboratories, the Neural and Behavioral Sciences building, and the housing in Goddard/Richards of the Centers for Cognitive Neuroscience, Functional Neuroimaging, and Neuroscience and Society that will co-locate computational and social scientists.  These contiguous facilities will now be used to promote intellectual synergies and serve as a dedicated home for shared instrumentation and collaborative laboratory facilities. The School will establish a Neuroscience Council composed of faculty across the disciplines to propose additional targeted faculty hiring particularly where it will foster meaningful connections between the humanities, social sciences, cognitive science, and neuroscience. Recruitment strategies will include cluster hiring and the appointment of senior faculty who build bridges across schools, including through the Penn Integrates Knowledge program. SAS will also support post-doctoral “junior fellows” who will be recruited for their ability to work across disciples and with multiple faculty mentors.

Through this initiative transformative research will also inspire innovative teaching and public programs, benefiting several departments as well as interdisciplinary majors including the Biological Basis of Behavior; Cognitive Science; Visual Studies; and Philosophy, Politics and Economics; and minors such as Computational Neuroscience, Consumer Behavior (with Wharton), and the proposed Neuroeconomics. This initiative will also fund new opportunities for undergraduate research, especially in the summer.  Strengthened outreach efforts will include those of the Center for Neuroscience and Society and the Penn Humanities Forum.