Good interdisciplinarity is . . . in some ways just more work.
Tom Insel, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience

Join the discussion

Emory and the changing climate of neuroscience

Scholarship these days . . . involves one's own personal style of eclecticism
Robert A. Paul, Candler Professor and Chair, The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Academic Exchange February/March 2000 Contents Page

After joining the National Institutes of Mental Health in 1979, psychiatrist Tom Insel developed the first effective medical treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder before turning to his current research on the neuroscience of affiliation and parental care in animals.

The Academic Exchange What do you see as the greatest challenges of interdisciplinary work?

Dr. Tom Insel First of all, some problems are handled best with a tight, disciplinary focus. Second, there is a risk of being a mile wide and an inch deep. I worry about the project that has ten investigators but no one who really knows what's going on. Even though we like to think it is an opportunity for new discoveries--and I think it is--good interdisciplinarity is also incredibly time consuming. In some ways, it's just more work; it's harder to do.

Having said all that, I think there are some problems that you are only going to approach in this way if you want to approach them intelligently. And the one that Harold Varmus, the head of nih, has used as an example is pain. We really are not going to be able to understand pain without taking a view from molecular changes at a single-cell level up to the subjective experience of people.

AE Harvard's Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative investigates some of the same issues that the BNC will, but they also include humanities faculty, like English professor Elaine Scarry, who writes on pain.

TI I still believe--and this is an issue for some discussion--that the scientific mission has to remain very focused on making discoveries in behavioral neuroscience. I worry about having so many different directions that nothing ever really gets accomplished. The mission has to be discovery based on experiments linking brain and behavior. At this stage, I don't see how the humanities will contribute to this mission. This may happen as we evolve.

AE So discovery is the essence of scholarship for you?

TI Absolutely. But that's my view--it is not for everyone, and it is not the dominant view at Emory. Particularly within the college, scholarship may mean writing about other people's discoveries. That is important, but that is not what the center is funded for.

AE Some have identified an area of mistrust between the humanities and social sciences; where scientists see medical advances, humanists see eugenics, for instance.

TI I don't see this mistrust, but then I may be talking exclusively to scientists. Actually, I like to think that some of my favorite scientists are humanists. Certainly, I don't like the assumption that scientists can't read a moral compass or, for that matter, that an expert in the humanities can't contribute to medical care. We can't allow scientists or science students to leave the moral questions, the tough questions, to non-scientists. In a center that is investigating aggression and attachment, we need to consider how our work can contribute to the public good and how our work might be misused.

AE The rational basis of science is usually seen as opposed to the intuitive basis of faith. But one definition of faith is the belief in things that are unseen. Do you think brain researchers are pulled by a kind of faith in the power of the unseen?

TI I've always felt pulled by the mystery of behavior, whether it is obsessive-compulsive behavior or pair bonding in prairie voles. The closer you look, the more mysterious it becomes. Our understanding of normal or abnormal behavior is much less interesting than the behavior itself. And that was particularly true of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It seems like demonic possession. It's just absolutely an extraordinary phenomenon of the human mind. Our understanding of it is so trivial, it's almost embarrassing.

AE What do you make of the popularity of evolutionary psychology, which many see as the latest version of socio-biology?

TI I'm intrigued by its popularity. It's kind of like science by metaphor. Fun to read, but it's hard to approach scientifically.

AE Research about the brain is particularly vulnerable to faulty public translation because of its complexity, the rapidity of advances, and the way so many topics relate to larger social and political debates. What fears do you have about that?

TI Tremendous ones. I've become gun-shy with the press. After we had a paper in Nature about monogamy, we must have gotten one hundred and fifty press inquiries afterward and almost all started with the same question: "So is this what President Clinton needs?" There's such a tendency to assume that every basic science discovery should get translated into human terms.