"The idea is to help people understand how this science is relevant to their daily lives. Our brain likes novelty. It gets this sort of dopamine hit when you give it new information. Capturing attention and getting people excited about the information is really important, especially when dealing with things like public health issues, for example.”
– Dr. Heather Berlin, Neuropsychologist and Assistant Clinical Professor at Mount Sinai
Episode 15: "Communicating Science Effectively and The Notion of Free Will" with Dr. Heather Berlin *On Consciousness*
For Episode #15, our returning guest is neuropsychologist Dr. Heather Berlin, an Assistant Clinical Professor in Psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Berlin is a trained neuroscientist and a clinical psychologist. She is also interested in the neural basis of consciousness, dynamic unconscious processes, the use of psychedelics to treat mental disorders, and in the neural basis of creativity. We discuss her work and passions in this episode.
0:00 - Intro with Bernard Baars, Dr. Heather Berlin & Student Interviewer, Ilian Daskalov
1:14 - Self-regulation and impulsivity
6:59 - Communicating science effectively
10:57 - The future of AI
16:23 - The notion of free will
19:30 - Future scientific discoveries
22:33 - Advice for neuroscience students
Bernie Baars expresses his interest in the topic of human impulsivity and invites Dr. Berlin to share how her work has been shaped by studying the nature of self-regulation. Heather discusses her pursuit of trying to understand what makes us distinctly human, which led her on a journey of studying the functions of the prefrontal cortex. Additionally, the two also briefly touch on how Freud’s work has contributed to our understanding of the human mind.
Bernie then welcomes Student Interviewer Ilian Daskalov, a Cognitive Science student at University of California, Irvine into the conversation to further explore her unique work, research and creative endeavors.
Relating Science to Our Daily Lives
They begin with the question “What makes someone an effective science communicator?” Heather explains that while there are many ways to communicate science, the key to capturing your audience’s attention stems from relating science information to their daily lives. Heather says:
“First of all, find what you are good at, what medium you might be best at. You know, my husband raps about science, right? That's his medium. Then start to cultivate your medium. I think the kind of overarching aim that runs across them all is about connecting with people. I think on an emotional level, on a personal level -- because sometimes science can be abstract and objective, and that's what we want with science. It's objective. It's not amenable to our subjectivity, but at the same time that can feel very clinical. Distant.
The idea is to help people understand how this science is relevant to their daily lives. How it's meaningful and what it means to them. Even if it's just inspiring a sense of awe, like, I don't know for sure about astrophysics, maybe it doesn't have any direct impact on our daily life, but just living in this universe and the enormity of it!! It’s awe inspiring!
Our brain likes novelty. It gets this sort of dopamine hit when you give it new information. Capturing attention and getting people excited about the information is really important, especially when dealing with things like public health issues, for example.”
Conscious AI and the Notion of Free Will
Recalling a recent interview between Heather Berlin and Sophia the Robot, Ilian seeks to understand where the future development of general artificial intelligence is heading. Both Bernie and Heather express their skepticism that humanity will be able to create conscious machines. They go on to explain that while our understanding of consciousness is yet incomplete, the biological components that it consists of appear to be fundamental building blocks.
Following the topic of AI, the discussion moves on to the notion of Free Will. Heather points out that although there is no evidence for the Cartesian definition of Free Will, the unconscious processes may not be predetermined. She further highlights the fact that the lack of Free Will does not excuse inappropriate human behavior as we have evolved the capacity to have self-control, primarily due to the maturation of the prefrontal cortex.
Bernie shares his thoughts on consciousness and the sense of Free Will:
“Consciousness has been a huge taboo in the last 100 years, and so people are very often a little bit ashamed or inhibited or afraid of getting criticized when they speak freely of consciousness and Free Will. The key move in this new and confusing area is to state our questions in a testable and open-minded way. In good science, we should never impose our answers onto nature.
The way to study the sense of freedom that we all have is profoundly important -- it is very real -- and not an illusion. There are profound biological reasons as to why humans and animals prefer freedom over coercion. Once we ask the question this way, we can study it.”
In the final moments of the episode, Ilian inquires about any future scientific discoveries that Heather is most enthusiastic about. She shares her excitement for the potential uses of neural implants which will aid in manipulating pathways in our brains, leading to enhanced memory, creativity, and intelligence. She also expresses optimism that through gene editing, we would be able to eliminate some neurological illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s Disease.
In closing, Ilian asks: “What general advice do you have for students of neuroscience and psychology?” Heather responds by urging science students to be persistent in chasing their goals and to always be bold and take risks, and says,
“Just keep going, keep going, keep going, and don't let anybody stop you unless it's illegal.”
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Dr. Heather Berlin is a dual-trained neuroscientist and clinical psychologist, and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mont Sinai in NY. She explores the neural basis of impulsive and compulsive psychiatric and neurological disorders with the aim of developing novel treatments. She is also interested in the brain basis of consciousness, dynamic unconscious processes, and creativity. Clinically, she specializes in lifespan (child, adolescent, and adult) treatment of anxiety, mood, and impulsive and compulsive disorders (e.g. OCD), blending her neural perspective with cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and humanistic approaches. You can visit her website at https://www.heatherberlin.com/
Ilian Daskalov is a senior undergraduate student at University of California, Irvine where he studies Cognitive Science. He holds an associate degree with honors from San Diego Mesa College. His research interests include sleep, psychedelics, and artificial intelligence. He is passionate about communicating science and promoting critical thinking.
Bernard Baars is best known as the originator of global workspace theory and global workspace dynamics,a theory of human cognitive architecture, the cortex and consciousness. Bernie is a former Senior Fellow in Theoretical Neurobiology at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, CA, and Editor in Chief of the Society for MindBrain Sciences. He is author of many scientific papers, articles, essays, chapters, and acclaimed books and textbooks.
Bernie is the recipient of the 2019 Hermann von Helmholtz Life Contribution Award by the International Neural Network Society, which recognizes work in perception proven to be paradigm changing and long-lasting.
He teaches science. It keeps him out of trouble.
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