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School of Medicine
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His interests in the brain and mind go way back
You've used an animal model to study spatial learning by asking what goes on in the animal's brain as it learns to navigate a new environment. Do you yourself have an especially good sense of direction?
FOSTER: I have to be honest: I'm terrible at spatial memory. I'm the last person you'd want to be with in a new city.
So it wasn't your personal skill at these tasks that sparked your interest in this field. What did? When did your interest in neuroscience begin?
FOSTER: As a child I'd been really interested in philosophy, questions about the nature of mind. Do we construct the world entirely out of experiences we've had "learning everything from scratch" or do we come preconfigured with internal models of the world?
This is an ancient question. For example, Plato said that our perception of reality only dimly reflects the ideal forms of things, an idea that may have derived from Pythagoras. In more modern times, Kant placed the forms inside our own heads, saying that perception requires a priori categories, in other words, people have an innate conception of space. It's fascinating to think that science could actually resolve such a question.
So that led you to choose neuroscience?
FOSTER: Indirectly. I studied physics at college, and at the time I found it quite dry. But in college I was lucky to discover a field called psychophysics, which sounds like a branch of physics but is really a kind of neuroscience in which careful measurements of perception or behavior are used to infer things about how the brain works.
That led to work in computational neuroscience, in which I studied computational models of neural systems. But early on I realized that recording directly from neurons would be much more exciting than developing computer models.
What in particular intrigued you?
FOSTER: One piece of research that I learned about made a big impression. In the fifties and sixties, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel showed that individual brain cells fire in response to lines and edges in the visual field (research that led to the Nobel prize). The idea that fairly deep in the brain you have cells that respond to a line in a certain orientation or to a line moving in a certain direction. I thought that was the most fascinating idea. It's extraordinary to me still.
So Kant was right?
FOSTER: Neuroscientists (including ourselves) are now showing in studies with rats that the brain has remarkable prearranged expectations.