Imagine if you were paralyzed and unable to communicate. Your loved ones and doctors would have no way of knowing whether you felt at peace or were suffering. Currently, brain scans could not tell us how you feel. Ralph Adolphs (PhD ’93) would like to change that.
Since his years as a Caltech graduate student, Adolphs has wanted to learn how the biological brain produces the intangible mind, what the mind’s basic elements are, and how the two influence each other.
“I was impatient to get to questions about the mind—consciousness, how people think and feel,” he says. “I actually considered doing a second PhD, in philosophy.”
Then, Adolphs met neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who studied patients with local brain damage that affected their personalities and decision-making. As a postdoctoral scholar in Damasio’s University of Iowa laboratory, Adolphs researched how a brain region called the amygdala influences social behavior, memory, and a person’s ability to recognize others’ emotions.
When he returned to Caltech as a professor in 2004, the Caltech Brain Imaging Center (CBIC) had just opened, with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Researchers use CBIC’s state-of-the-art MRI scanners to image brain structure and activity.
Adolphs and his students and collaborators (including Damasio, now at USC) trace the relationship of biology to emotion and behavior. They elucidated the amygdala’s role in fear and the recognition of social cues from facial expressions, the frontal lobes’ links to reasoning and choosing, and differences in how people with autism look at and interpret images. They developed an algorithm that predicted people’s scores on intelligence tests based on scans of their brains at rest.
Yet with all of these discoveries, the chasm between biology and conscious experience has yet to be bridged.
Fear in a Dish
To understand any part of the mind, Adolphs believes, scientists will have to understand all of it.
“If I take a brain image and I see some areas light up, is that fear?” he says. “If I take the amygdala out of a brain and put it in a dish, is there fear there? What does that even mean? It’s the same with conscious experience.”
“The mind comes as a package. None of its processes operates in isolation. Emotions interact with memory and attention and cognitive control.”
– Ralph Adolphs
So Adolphs is taking a new approach. Now Caltech’s Bren Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biology and holder of CBIC’s Allen V. C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair, he aims to develop a complete architecture of the mind.
Break Through: The Caltech Campaign, and in particular the gift that established the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech, is accelerating his pursuit of this enormous ambition. “Having grants that make it possible to investigate interesting and maybe crazy ideas quickly is essential to the style of science that has always kept Caltech at the forefront,” he says.
His project has grown into a federally funded collaboration with a Caltech colleague who did earn a doctorate in philosophy, Frederick Eberhardt.
How to Map the Mind
As a starting point, Adolphs re-examines psychological classifications of emotions, personality, and intelligence to identify fundamental components that can be detected via brain activity. He plans to chart how these basic elements interact and combine with each other to produce the breadth of human feelings, behaviors, and abilities.
This work integrates studies of populations and individuals, biology and behavior, people with typical brains and people whose brains developed differently, were injured, or underwent surgery.
To search for traits that are shared by many people, he and Eberhardt apply machine-learning algorithms to a vast, shared scientific database of brain scans and psychological information. To correlate specific physical and mental states, Adolphs leads studies in which participants react to pictures and videos while researchers track markers such as where the subjects focus their eyes, when they sweat, how their pulses and breathing vary, and how electrical signals and blood move in their brains. Additionally, several neurosurgical patients have allowed Adolphs to monitor how individual cells across their brains contribute to mental processes.
Ultimately, a greater understanding of the mind could strengthen the basis for diagnosis and classification of psychiatric disorders. Neural data could reflect on psychological intelligence assessments in fascinating ways. Adolphs anticipates that his effort could support future studies of how the mind evolved, when it emerges as a baby develops, and how it changes throughout adulthood. And he hopes to advance the ability to discern emotional states from brain activity.
“In the big picture, we hope that our work to understand what the mind is would also give us some insight into suffering,” he says. “If we knew enough about the mind that we could say, ‘Look, I can take a brain image, I can tell you if this person or this animal is suffering’—well, that would be revolutionary.”