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Interview with Dr. Georg Northoff




Journalist: Amy Stewart


AMY: Hello and welcome back to SciSection. I'm your journalist Amy Stewart for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMEU 93.3. FM radio station. We're here today with Dr. Georg Northoff, a philosopher, neuroscientist, and psychiatrist, who is a research chair in the Mind, Brain imaging and Neuroethics. It is such a pleasure to have you on the show today. Dr. Northoff.


Dr. Northoff: Yeah. Hello. Welcome, everybody.


AMY: So to get us started, I think it'd be great to hear about your educational history and what made you pursue three related but distinct degrees?


Dr. Northoff: Yeah, good question. So I wanted to say I always wanted to study philosophy originally, because I had a very good philosophy teacher in high school. But I wanted to study philosophy with a very concrete, another concrete discipline. So then the choice was either combined philosophy with mathematic physics, which is sort of a classical combination. Then the other thing was philosophy and law. And then the other thing was basically philosophy and the brain. And the mind-body problem that was sort of my time, and I think it's still there, is really one of the main and key problems of the times. So in order to study the brain and the mind, at the time, there was no neuroscience programs yet you cannot even imagine nowadays. So I had to study medicine. So that's why I studied medicine, philosophy and then of course, neuroscience came on board.


AMY: Oh, that's awesome. I love that you found a way to take what you're passionate about, and then pair it with something like you said, more concrete. I've only taken a few philosophy classes in my time at university and I find it's so theoretical, I would find you sometimes need the science to ground you. But I'm sure it gives you a whole host of tools to work with.


Dr. Northoff: Yeah, and it was really beneficial because I've studied because particularly if you want to research something as complex as mind, brain-mind-body problem, which is really right at the interface between conceptual philosophical issues and empirical issues, you need to have the models and it's very important in mind, when you look into the history of physics. Many physicists, particularly at the beginning of the 20th century, they also had a strong philosophical interest or even background. So you really need both you need to theoretical models and empirical research. So and I'm still very happy that I did this, and I've been still benefit from.


AMY: So I would love to hear more about your research and how these three disciplines that you operate in, have helped you with your research questions about the brain-mind connection, and other research projects you've been working on?


Dr. Northoff: Yeah. So I give you an example of how the interfaces of many of the famous philosopher, Immanuel Kant, in the 18th 19th century in Germany back in Germany said, basically, I rephrase it a little bit:

empirical data without a model, theoretical models are blind, and theoretical models without empirical data are empty.

So, and I think that's really true. So what I do, I developed over the time, a lot of models of different mental features, like of the self, of consciousness, of mind wandering, just, we just recently paper, published two papers on meditation on dreams, spatial-temporal models, which is based on research. And then these models also give me new ideas for what to do on the empirical research side. And then the data gives me new ideas for the model. So it's always circulating everybody who does science really try who tries to be discovered something, you have to go back between the models between the theory and the empirical data, and goes back and forth. And now we also do computational models. So neural network models strongly drawing an artificial intelligence to model and simulate certain mechanism in the brain, your own mechanism, and how they're potentially then could account for what we experience subjectively, because that's ultimately, of course, my main interest, how is it possible that we experience something subjective, despite we can't see it in the brain imaging, and this is, in being a psychiatrist, I know you're having a radio interview, you can't see me smiling now, but I still like all these mental phenomena. That's also why I became a psychiatrist, because you see a lot of interesting experiences and borderline experience, but it's part of the reality and also part of the reality of our brain. Or, more recently, we go into meditation. So I'm really asking how is this possible that you can have these subjective experiences based on your brain and your body and how that is linked to the environment? And this really, for me, it's a very fascinating question. And I learn a lot about.


AMY: Wow your attitude towards your work just demonstrates like the perfect scientists, you really nothing is off limits, and I love how you're always updating like your hypotheses and your work and feeding back from the data to like the theoretical side of it. I mean, the sky's the limit. I really love how fascinated you are and how that just encourages you to pursue more work. That is awesome.


Dr. Northoff: This is science. When you look into the history of science, that's what it is. And but the most important thing I remember the question would come, most important that you really enjoy what you're doing. I mean, that you're fascinated by this, all these other external influences. They're important, but ultimately that you really enjoy what you do is the most fascinated your question that that's what science is about. If you raise questions, which others may have not seen yet, yeah. So you raise, again, when you look into the history, the great discoveries, always started with a question, nobody else raised, they didn't see that. Darwin saw that all these biological species have a certain similarity differences. And so and so he raised the question, how is it possible, and without invoking a god, and then he said, Okay, this is this is evolution. So he, he saw certain things, which we couldn't see based on his questions. Yeah. And that is, for me, the most fun, I spend a lot of time actually thinking about what is the next logical question? Yeah, I have this data, this empirical data. So what is the next question now to do what? Yeah, I spend a lot of time on that when I bike or run.


AMY: I'm just starting my research journey and I find that's a skill I'm really trying to develop is figuring out how to ask those questions. And like what to look at and to take into consideration I find it's definitely a skill of its own, like you said, to look at something and pick out something novel to investigate further.


Dr. Northoff: Yeah, yeah. I mean, certain people like it, certain others don't. And that's absolutely fair. I mean, you would never want me to be a cook or a carpenter, it would be a catastrophe. Yeah. So I think everybody has her or his own preferences, and what you like, and you need to find out.


AMY: So I'd love to hear a little bit more about what kind of techniques you're using in your lab to conduct your research.


Dr. Northoff: Yeah, so we use a lot of what is called brain imaging. So we have seen, you probably have seen these colourful dots and spots on brains, what is called functional magnetic resonance imaging. And that's a particular technique, where you can really scan basically what brain regions into different networks and the brain as a whole is doing. And that has a very good. what is called as very good spatial resolution. It gives submillimeter insight into the brain. But on the temperate sides of the illusion is rather slow, it's in seconds, so that is very long for the brain. So there you have another technique, which is called electroencephalography or magnetic encephalography, you measure basically the electrical activity of the brain called EEG or MEG. And that has a very high millimeter millisecond precision, though, has high temporal precision. But of course, nothing comes for free, as we all know in life, that has not a good spatial resolution. So ideally, you want to combine those techniques, we do. And of course, it's a lot of data processing, what you do how you analyze the data. And then more recently, we also combined that a lot with artificial neural network models, so called computation models, where we simulate certain brain processes, based on the data, we try to convert, for instance, your individual fMRI, or EEG data with a computation or network model. And then we can basically simulate certain processes how your brain will react, and which of course, you can't do in the real brain. So that's something we really do more and more. And it's also to get more into the mechanisms underlying what we observed, the data are just the pinnacle of underlying processes, of which we have not much of an idea these days, but that you can use the computational model is basically like, we want to say it's a play tool. Yeah. So you can shift to different things and see what comes out. Yeah.


AMY: I can really see how that reflects the philosophy you quoted from Kant, like you said, how you need all these different points of view to like analyse something as complex as the brain, you can't just use one tool, you need to use multiple, all from different faculties of neuroscience and philosophy. So that's very cool, how you combine all of that, and then try to interpret that. I mean, that must be like, complicated in itself to put that all together and know what you have in front of you.


Dr. Northoff: It is indeed, but it's a lot of fun. It's like, let's say you buy a puzzle, it's a shot, and then you don't know how to put the pieces of the puzzle together. And that's what it is.


AMY: Yeah, I definitely love how you frame your work as fun. I think that is such like a positive attitude to have towards academia, which sometimes gets a bad rap for being dry or boring. But you know, your attitude towards it is exactly what I love to see.


Dr. Northoff: Yeah, see, it's a very good point. What do you say? I mean, academia can be very dry and draining because with all this grant stuff, and all this formal stuff has been overloaded by administrative issues. And it's a constraint and in particular, for young investigators, there's a lot of imposition. So I think one really needs to, so I try to make myself free of that and really pursue the research. And I'm lucky enough that I can do this year that they already know that I don't like all this administrative stuff. So as long as a really, I mean, we're, I think we have somewhat of a productive group. So as long as that works, and I really try to carve out my niche, and that's very important, because you don't need to have to do everything, what they tell you to do. I mean, we usually never do this as academics. But often, the circumstances are very difficult, I can only recommend for everybody to try to cover a really little niche for you, where you keep that freedom, it's very important, because it's very easy to lose the joy and become drained out.


AMY: I'm sure, like, early on in a lot of people's careers. I mean, you kind of just want to take on the whole world when answering questions. So like you said, that probably leads to burnout pretty quickly when you take on too much too quickly.


Dr. Northoff: And then also, they tell you, you need to do this, you need to do this. And unfortunately, I have to recommend not always follow this advice. So please, I hope that you don't send this to administrators. Okay.


AMY: So for my next question, I would love to hear what you think the future of these fields of neuroscience and philosophy and all those sorts of things, how they will look with like the contribution of your research and all these new tools that are being that are coming out, like you said, with those computational models, like what does the future of your field look like?


Dr. Northoff: That's a good question. I really, so to be honest, let's face it, we don't really know how brain and mind are related. We don't really know how neuronal mental activity consciousness, sense of self, how's it related to each other? We know, let's say I give you an analogous example, from very simple, we know how the chemical formula of water is related to fluid ice or vapour. Yeah, we know that. Let's say imagine, if you want knowing that you would assume that ice fluid and vapour are three different chemicals. So that's exactly we don't know, it's often called the hard problem. We don't know the relationship. But that's, for me, really the key. And I hope that my own research, we have a particular model that spatial-temporal structures provides the link between the neuronal and mental so that you have certain spatial temporal organization in your neuronal activity, and that is reflected in the spatial temporal organization of your mental features, let's say if your brain is very slow, you also experience everything and yourself is very slow, for instance, in depression. So and of course, I hope that really that I can make a contribution to that better understanding this link between the brain and mind because ultimately, when you read the opening of my website, that basically my whole life, and you want your life to be worth something. And the other thing, what I really hope

that we can translate some of that for the diagnosis and therapy of mental disorders like depression, schizophrenia, autism, bipolar, anxiety, post traumatic disorder, because after all, I'm also a psychiatrist who still see some patients. And I see this suffering and the way psychiatry as a medical discipline is practices really 20th century and I think it really needs to get a lift, let's say when you go to the Heart Institute here in Ottawa, which is the top Institute, you describe your symptoms, and they do a battery of lab tests. Then based on the lab test, they go, they do ultrasound, they do X-ray, and all kinds of other investigations. Nothing of that happens in psychotic disorders, it is based on observation. And then the therapy is trial and error, and our hope that we can change it. And we are really working on this kind of biomarkers. And also, for translating that into clinical reality. We also found that the company, not of mental health diagnostic to really translate something into reality. So I hope that could be my contribution, whether it works or not, I don't know if you ask me for my wish I would be really happy if in my lifetime, I would see how this brain mind puzzle is cracked. Because I assume that says simple maybe retrospectively once it is cracked. Okay, how stupid were we ended so simple, but we didn't see it?


AMY: Hindsight is 2020 as they always say, I guess.


Dr. Northoff: Yeah.


AMY: I absolutely agree with what you say about psychiatry as well. I mean, that's a discipline that I have always wanted to pursue. And I completely agree. I mean, like you said, it's very observational based on how diagnostics work in the field of psychiatry, and you know, even how you're explaining how you study the brain is you can't use one method to study it. You have to use all these different combined techniques and I think that should be applied to the field of psychiatry. So I like how all of your philosophies tend to connect. I guess that makes sense as you are a philosopher. Yeah, that is that is awesome. It is so excellent to hear about your research, and especially to have you in Ottawa. It is such an honour. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, it's felt like such a brief talk. I feel like I could ask you questions for another hour or so. But that is all the time we have for today.


Dr. Northoff: Okay, good. Yeah.


AMY: That's it for this week of SciSection. Make sure to check out our podcast available on global platforms for the latest interviews, as well. If you'd like to learn more about Dr. Northoff’s research, you can check out his website GeorgNorthoff.com as well if you'd like to read more about his research and his thoughts on all these complex topics. Keep an eye out for his new book coming out called Neurowaves.


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