The Chronicle Review

What They Built at Brain Camp

Cap Pannell for The Chronicle Review

September 03, 2012

Like so many love stories, this one started with a cup of wine and a guitar.

It was late on a summer's night in 2001, and a group of neuroscience graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from around the country and the world were spread across an oversize balcony on the campus of Dartmouth College. They had all given up their summers to come to Hanover, N.H., and spend their days listening to lectures and their nights discussing and debating them as part of the 14th annual Cognitive Neuroscience Summer Institute—or, as they called it, "Brain Camp."

On the balcony that night, beer, wine, and conversation flowed freely: these three discussing executive function and its control by parts of the frontal cortex, those other two, in the corner, tossing back and forth perspectives on memory and the hippocampus.

But off to one side, a guitar had materialized, and a young man, a graduate student from Princeton, was playing. A woman, late in her Ph.D. studies at the University of Iowa, was listening, hearing little else.

Eleven years later, that woman, Andrea Heberlein, and that man, Joshua Greene, are happily married. They are also leaders in their chosen field of cognitive neuroscience, working at Boston College and Harvard University, respectively. Both look back at their time in Brain Camp as a foundational, formative experience in their personal and professional lives.

Greene arrived at Brain Camp that summer as a late-stage doctoral candidate in philosophy with a budding interest in cognitive neuroscience. He left, he says, transformed and motivated, having seen a human brain in the flesh for the first time and with a network of close contacts spread throughout the world. "Before I went I knew no one in the field, except for a couple of people in my lab," he says. "And after, I felt like I was part of a community."

Today Greene is known as an innovator in that community, for using techniques from psychology and neuroscience to answer philosophical questions, like why we make the moral decisions we do and whether there truly is such a thing as objective morality.

Heberlein likewise has made a name for herself, studying theory of mind and social neuroscience. Like her husband, she raves about Brain Camp—how she suddenly went from being relatively isolated to being part of a team.

To hear Greene tell it, Brain Camp was instrumental in imparting the methodological knowledge, the contacts, and, perhaps most of all, the chutzpah that have taken him from a humanities Ph.D. program to prominence in his scientific field.

"It would be hard for me to point to two weeks in my life that were more consequential than those two weeks," Greene says. "I mean, my children owe their existence to Brain Camp."

In some ways, the very field of cognitive neuroscience owes its existence to Brain Camp. Though research in the field appears to be nearly everywhere these days, from the pages of Nature to the front page of The New York Times, it wasn't that long ago that it was just getting off the ground.

Elizabeth Phelps, a professor at New York University and a leader in the study of fear and the brain, was at the very first Brain Camp, in 1988. At the time, researchers were still trying to figure out how to synthesize the ideas of cognitive science and psychology with the techniques of neuroscience. "It was a hugely important part of the origin of cognitive neuroscience," she says of Brain Camp. "At the time when it first started, it was really revolutionary. The summer really allowed people to have an opportunity to cross-train."

Phelps remembers talk that summer of a newfangled technique few had heard of called functional magnetic resonance imaging—the technique that today defines human neuroscience. She says talking to prominent researchers at Brain Camp about the emerging approach played a major role in her later use of it. "I met John Belliveau, who was on the first fMRI paper. I met Jon Cohen, who was on a lot of the early papers," she says. When she decided to pursue the technique herself, she knew whom to call.

After that first summer, Michael S. Gazzaniga, a pioneer of cognitive neuroscience who was at Dartmouth at the time, took over the program.

"From the beginning, what we were trying to do was to gather together 70 of the brightest kids from around the world to come together and let them see how this field is going to work, and what the topics are going to be," he says, "to let them participate in the making of the field as well."

At the time, behavioral scientists and neuroscientists worked almost entirely on rodents, nonhuman primates, and other animals. Psychologists and cognitive scientists worked with humans and developed theories based on their behavior. Gazzaniga wanted to bring the two groups together. "The cognitive guys had lots of theories, but it wasn't bounded by much biology," he says. "Neuroscience guys had lots of information but didn't have theory." By putting young scientists in the presence of researchers from both camps, Gazzaniga hoped to create a new generation that would hybridize what were then disparate fields.

Early on, Gazzaniga approached the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts to provide financial support, allowing students and faculty to travel to and attend the institute free of charge. After 10 years, the foundations bowed out, and it was up to the course directors to apply to the federal government for grants, which they did successfully. Since 1998, the meeting has been entirely financed by the National Institute of Mental Health (the National Institute on Drug Abuse contributed from 2005 to 2010 as well). In this way, Gazzaniga says, Brain Camp represents a serious public-private effort to get a field off the ground.

Today, Brain Camp is held at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Gazzaniga now teaches, and is directed by George R. Mangun, dean of social sciences at UC-Davis. Gazzaniga stays involved as a co-director, and the camp retains much of the format it had in its early years. The course is two weeks long, and each week has a theme (this year's themes: Brain Plasticity and Memory). Each day has roughly the same schedule, Gazzaniga says: "Lectures in the morning, practicums in the afternoon, and parties at night!"

The balance of intensive talks with hands-on group exercises and relaxed social time was deliberate from the get-go. "I didn't want it to be just two weeks of sitting in a room with no social interactions. I thought that would be just deadly," he says.

As one talks to current and former participants, it's sometimes easy to forget that the program includes lectures at all. What stuck out most for Snigdha Banerjee, a graduate student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York, who attended the camp this summer, was a particular lunch with some of her fellow students. Everyone at the table had received predoctoral grants from the National Institutes of Health. "These people were all extremely motivated, and talented. Their energy really inspired me," says Banerjee, who studies how brain activity changes when people direct their attention toward different auditory or visual cues.

"The lectures were fantastic, and hugely inspirational for me. But in many ways it was more interesting to meet the people and hear about what they're working on," says Stuart Red, a graduate student from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston who attended the program this summer. "It's this incredible feeling: We're not alone here. We're not the only ones who are nerds."

Red's strongest memories sound remarkably familiar to Greene and Heberlein's: "One of the coolest things was, every night we were able to go out to the beach. People were playing music, and having somewhat scientific conversations mixed in with just getting to know each other on a personal level—over a couple beers, of course. Those nights will stay with me forever."

That community-building carries over beyond the summer. Greene says that for several years his Brain Camp cohort got together amid the hustle and bustle of the Society for Neuroscience meeting to catch up over dinner. Red, who is studying how the shape of an object affects the way the brain processes it, already has plans to see members of his group at meetings around the country this year. "I can definitely see the potential for collaborations," he says.

And Mangun believes that the intense interactions that go on throughout the day represent an irreplaceable education. "In science, you often wonder what other people think, but at the institute you find out what people think. You get these prestigious faculty members disagreeing with each other and including students in those discussions. There's nothing like having that experience."

The idea of exposing young scientists to leaders in their field, and to each other, during intensive summer workshops is not a new one. Gazzaniga says his vision of Brain Camp was based on the courses he had visited at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, on Long Island, which offers dozens of summer courses and symposia, many financed by the National Institutes of Health so that students can attend free of charge. He had watched those courses build up the field of genetics in its early days.

Such summer institutes in the sciences have a long history in the United States. In the late 19th century, the Marine Biological Laboratory, in Woods Hole, Mass., began its physiology course, focusing on teaching young scientists cutting-edge techniques. The course was designed to bring students into close contact with important biological research—often marine biology, but not exclusively—and the scientists who carry it out, a tradition it has maintained for over a hundred years.

And the intense interactions between students and faculty benefit more than just the pupils. In 1982, for example, while participating in the course as a faculty member, Tim Hunt discovered a molecule called cyclin B, a key driver of the cell cycle. The work later earned him a Nobel Prize, and in his address Hunt wrote that his time at Woods Hole "was the perfect place to learn cell and molecular and developmental biology because of the stream of expert lectures on a wide variety of topics, together with the opportunities for discussion in labs, bars, and beaches."

By all accounts, Gazza-niga's version of such a camp has been a tremendous success. "Now, the course is nothing like it used to be," says Phelps, who has returned as a faculty member and course co-director. "When the course first started, it was really hard to get funds to do this kind of work," she says, but now it's almost impossible for a cognitive scientist to get support without studying brain biology through fMRI imaging or a related means. Today, Brain Camp introduces new students to a well-established field and its deep community of scholars rather than starting one from scratch.

Scholars in other fields have also used summer institutes in recent years to move from the fringes of academe to the center of their field's discourse. Behavioral economics, which seeks to integrate the tenets of psychology into the study of decision making and markets, just held its 10th annual summer institute. Like Brain Camp was for its first 10 years, that program is sponsored by a nonprofit, the Russell Sage Foundation's Behavioral Economics Roundtable. Just as the McDonnell Foundation did for cognitive neuroscience, the Russell Sage Foundation has taken the lead in supporting the training of young behavioral economists.

Another such field, perhaps sitting closer to where cognitive neuroscience was in the late 1980s, is experimental philosophy, of which Joshua Greene has been in the avant-garde. In 2009 the philosophers Shaun Nichols, at the University of Arizona, and Ron Mallon, now at Washington University in St. Louis, started the Experimental Philosophy Institute, which met for the second time this summer in Arizona. Greene was one of its first faculty members in 2009.

The duo were able to get support for the institute from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which impressed Mallon. "People think of the NEH and funding in general as somewhat conservative, in terms of only funding what's already established," he says. "In this case I think the NEH was really forward thinking. They recognized a place where the funding they provided could make a real difference for the field."

Like the early Brain Camps, the EPI seeks to synthesize two fields, to unite philosophers with researchers in psychology and neuroscience so they can learn one another's techniques, make connections, and start collaborations. Many of the first cohort had never done a statistical analysis of data before. "We ended up giving a lot of remedial education," Nichols says. "But those techniques were essential if these people were going to work in the field." Of course, Nichols adds, there were the requisite nighttime wine-drinking parties and social hours—the dark matter that developing fields are made of.

Those connections have already begun to pay off for one 2009 attendee, Christine M. Weigel. Weigel, a philosophy professor at Utah Valley University, had long been interested in bringing quantitative methods to her work, but says she lacked the contacts and the methods to get her ideas off the ground. "It's not something you can just sort of glean how to do," she says. "You have to be immersed in the methodology, and there were things I needed help getting started on."

Today, Weigel says she has two publications in the field, including a paper presenting experimental evidence that people change their views about the existence of free will depending on how far into the future they are thinking about it. "I think I would have had zero if I hadn't gone. The course gave people the opportunity to workshop their ideas, and that helped me move forward. And as I was doing the experiments, I was able to call course heads and ask questions. It was just invaluable."

Jon Bardin is a freelance writer based in New York. In 2010 he attended a course at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on neuroinformatics, and his tuition was covered by the course's grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.