“Read Montague is getting frustrated. He’s trying to show me his newest brain scanner, a gleaming white fMRI machine that looks like a gargantuan tanning bed. The door, however, can be unlocked only by a fingerprint scan, which isn’t recognizing Montague’s fingers. Again and again, he inserts his palm under the infrared light, only to get the same beep of rejection. Montague is clearly growing frustrated – ‘ I can’t get into my own scanning room!’ he yells, at no one in particular – but he also appreciates the irony. A pioneer of brain imaging, he oversees one of the premier fMRI setups in the world, and yet he can’t even scan his own hand. ‘I can image the mind,’ he says. ‘But apparently my thumb is beyond the limits of science.’ Montague is director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab at Baylor College of Medicine in downtown Houston.
[..] Montague, who is uncommonly handsome, with a strong jaw and a Hollywood grin, first got interested in the brain while working in the neuroscience lab of Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman as a post-doc. ‘I was never your standard neuroscientist,’ he says. ‘I spent a lot of time thinking about how the brain should work, if I had designed it.’ For Montague the cortex was a perfect system to model, since its incomprehensible complexity meant that it depended on some deep, underlying order. ‘You can’t have all these cells interacting with each other unless there’s some logic to the interaction,’ he says. ‘It just looked like noise, though – no one could crack the code.’ That’s what Montague wanted to do.
[..] Montague realized that if he was going to solve the ciphers of the mind, he would need a cryptographic key, a ‘cheat sheet’ that showed him a small part of the overall solution. Only then would he be able to connect the chemistry to the electricity, or understand how the signals of neurons represented the world, or how some spasm of cells caused human nature. ‘There are so many different ways to describe what the brain does,’ Montague says. ‘You can talk about what a particular cell is doing, or look at brain regions with fMRI, or observe behavior. But how do these things connect? Because you know they are connected; you just don’t know how.’
That’s when Montague discovered the powers of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. His research on the singular chemical has drawn tantalizing connections between the peculiar habits of our neurons and the peculiar habits of real people, so that the various levels of psychological description – the macro and the micro, the behavioral and the cellular – no longer seem so distinct. What began as an investigation into a single neurotransmitter has morphed into an exploration of the social brain: Montague has pioneered research that allows him to link the obscure details of the cortex to all sorts of important phenomena, from stock market bubbles to cigarette addiction to the development of trust. ‘We are profoundly social animals,’ he says. ‘You can’t really understand the brain until you understand how these social behaviors happen, or what happens when they go haywire.’
(via Seed Magazine)