The Image: "Cortical Folds"
The average human brain has the surface area of a small table, but is able to fit inside your skull because of its many folds. This image has been recorded and reconstructed from a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of a human brain - specifically, the one currently producing this text. To create the image, I used software to remove the gray matter that lies on top of the cerebral cortex (which gives the brain its spongy look) to reveal the hills and valleys of the underlying white matter. The undulating surface is a very efficient way for 85 billion neurons (and even more support cells) to fit inside your skull.
Marc Coutanche studied Experimental Psychology for his Bachelor's degree at Oxford University, where he had his first research experience. He then went on to spend a few years doing something very different, as a consultant to government departments in London, before realizing that his true passion was science. He shifted careers and became a Research Assistant in an autism lab for a year. He then moved to the U.S. to get his PhD in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he used brain scanning and advanced analytical methods to understand how information in memory is encoded in the brain. He then completed a Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale University with a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health.
Marc currently works at the University of Pittsburgh as the Principal Investigator of the Learning in distributed Neural Systems (LeNS) lab. He is also an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition.
Why did you decide to pursue neuroscience?
I've always been fascinated by how complex biological systems achieve feats that humans are still unable to replicate. The brain is particularly intriguing because it underlies everything that makes us . . . us. My own field, cognitive neuroscience, lies at the intersection of neuroscience and psychology, so I get to ask how the three pounds of tissue inside our skull creates our entire mental world.
What are some ways in which studying the brain have changed the way you behave or interact with the world?
I often find myself drawing on my knowledge of the brain and cognition, and at this point it's automatic. For example, as a memory researcher, I know that our memories are very fallible, even if they seem very real and vivid. As a result, on occasions when others have a different idea of what's happened in the past, I am happy (or at least willing!) to realize that my own memories may very well be false. I also have a very well trained cat (yes, they do exist!). With the right rewards and training, cats can come when called and play fetch. I have proof at home!
Any advice for aspiring scientists that you wish someone had shared with you?
Having good advisors and mentors is everything. This matters more than your institution or classes. You want to find someone who gives guidance when necessary but who steps back enough to let you fail (which is crucial for improving) and to help fuel your enthusiasm. I was very lucky in my own mentors, because I really didn't realize this at first. If you don't have good mentors now, you can reach out to faculty members. Many would be delighted to help you.