CNS 2024 Q&A with Kia Nobre
For Kia Nobre, the drive toward science is instinctive. For as long as she can remember, she has been curious about the world around her. “I like to think that all humans start out that way, curious, perplexed even,” says Nobre of Yale University. “I don’t understand why or how, but most people seem to outgrow their inquisitiveness.”
Nobre’s persistent inquisitiveness ultimately led her to cognitive neuroscience, where for the past few decades, she has explored novel ways to understand the human brain. For her body of work studying focus – how the brain anticipates, prioritizes, and selects information from the sensory stream and from memories at various time scales to guide behavior – Nobre is the recipient of the CNS Distinguished Contributions Career Award.
I spoke with Nobre about her early inspirations in cognitive neuroscience and her latest work, to get a preview of her award lecture at CNS 2024 in Toronto this April.
CNS: What personally inspired you to pursue cognitive neuroscience?
Nobre: Cognitive neuroscience is personal to me. The power and the mystery of the mind hit me hard when I was five. My kid brother was born then. We were living in New York, away from home in Rio [de Janeiro, Brazil], as my dad completed some postgraduate studies. My brother was a dream, but something wasn’t quite right. Eventually, we learned that his brain was severely damaged by a blood-type incompatibility. As a child, I wondered what his mental experience was like. Could he recognize, imagine, dream, feel … through his blindness and deafness and muscular dystrophy? How did brains form minds?
There was no field of cognitive neuroscience while I was growing up. But, eventually, through the vagaries of a liberal arts degree in a U.S. college [Williams], I took a (then) cutting-edge course in physiological psychology and found my lodestar.
It pains me that I never managed to help my brother much. Instead, he was the one who helped me find purpose.
CNS: The title of your talk at CNS 2024 is “Focus Through Time.” What do you mean by “focus” here?
Nobre: My title is a play on words. I love to play with words and their various meanings.
I conceptualize ‘focus’ as a core organizational principle of selective attention – how we anticipate, select, prioritize, and take forward some signals over others to build perception, form memories, decide, cogitate, and act. This is an essential building block of neural systems but also of our psychological functions. Focus is mainly studied within the domain of ‘attention’, but it applies to most if not all neural systems and psychological domains. (Of course, we can extend the concept of focus to more complex individual, social, and cultural human endeavors but that is another story.)
CNS: What about “Through Time?”
Nobre: “Through time” is what carries the contributions my group uniquely brings to understanding focus. We embrace the stranger fourth dimension of time to investigate how the brain and mind favor signals at certain moments over others depending on their importance. We examine how we direct attention to certain signals over others inside our memories, of different timescales, as well as in the sensory stimulation of the present and the anticipated events on the horizon. By adding these two dynamical perspectives to the field of selective attention, we played our part in changing how we understand and research the nature of focus itself as a discipline.
CNS: What new findings are you most excited by and why?
Nobre: What most excites me is forging new ways to break open fundamental puzzles about the human mind. (As an aside, I am fascinated by how researchers dig so hard into some questions and leave others, equally or more interesting, mostly untouched.)
By now, the research field of internal selective attention is maturing and running alongside its much older sibling of external selective attention. But neither of these fields captures fully how focus works in everyday behavior. To carry out most tasks – preparing a meal, driving, holding a conversation, writing a paper – we seamlessly draw from signals in the sensory stream and in our memories to guide our interactions. How do we shift our focus between the external, sensory domain and the internal, memory domains? Are there special control systems or just a competition between domains? Do we sample continuously between the two, or linger for periods in one domain or the other? We are enjoying designing new types of tasks to bring this fundamental property of our minds to the surface. We are also trying to stitch together the threads of previous relevant research that may help guide us along our adventures.
CNS: What tools and technologies are you most excited by in your work and why?
Nobre: The breakneck and ever-accelerating pace of hardware and analytical technologies is a hallmark of cognitive neuroscience. For example, in non-invasive human neurophysiology, we shifted from analyzing sizes and timings of peaks and troughs in event-related potentials averaged over a group of participants in my graduate school years to recording MEG signals using SQUIDS (superconducting quantum interference devices) and now OPMs (optically pumped magnetometers) and to analyzing spectra data, in single trials, with data-driven and computational methods.
In the lab, we welcome new methods, tracking advances in human neurophysiology and imaging. We are also working on refining our methods to capture the behavioral manifestations of the mind by measuring continuous changes in the eyes and muscles. Somatic measures have been relatively overlooked, but they can be just as informative about psychological functions. We are excited about the new virtual and immersive technologies, which, combined with portable methods for measuring brain and behavior, will let us perform tightly controlled experiments within ecological and natural settings.
But, most importantly, we value each instrument for its unique strength and so we keep a well-stocked toolshed. We mix old favorites with flashy gadgets to carve and sculpt and chisel meaningful insights out of our questions.
CNS: What do you most want cognitive neuroscientists to understand about the work you are doing?
Nobre: That’s a hard question. In this age of information and data overflow, with so many studies competing for readership, each with its bite-sized message, it may be unreasonable to expect people to appreciate others’ legacy. So, I’m just amazed and grateful if anyone notices what we are up to.
I guess a lot of our message is that we have far to go. Let’s not settle for easy intuitions, simple dichotomies, sweeping equations… just yet. It’s the mind we’re talking about, after all!! Our research highlights the plurality and flexibility of processes that enable the brain to focus on some signals over others to guide perception, prepare action, and ground cognition. The “it’s nuanced” narrative is not an easy sell.
I’m curious about people’s intuitions, understandings, and misconceptions about how the brain contributes to the mind. Those conversations can provide valuable new perspectives about scientific questions as well as how we succeed or fail in bringing science into the fold of society.
CNS: What do you most want the public to understand about what you are doing?
Nobre: I like to share my sense of wonder about the human mind and explain that, all neuroscience hype aside, the scientific understanding of the mind is just beginning. I try to champion the importance of fundamental, discovery science. And I seek to bring to life the scientific process of how we ask big abstract questions about how the brain supports cognitive functions, like focus.
But, equally, I endeavor to learn. I’m curious about people’s intuitions, understandings, and misconceptions about how the brain contributes to the mind. Those conversations can provide valuable new perspectives about scientific questions as well as how we succeed or fail in bringing science into the fold of society.
CNS: What are you most excited about for the CNS 2024 meeting in Toronto?
Nobre: I am deeply humbled by the recognition of trust and appreciation for my research by my scientific community. My scientific drive, activities, and community of peers, trainees, and students are major ingredients of my identity and sources of personal joy. I know that CNS Toronto will feel very very special to me.
And, of course, I look forward to having fun with friends, being inspired by others, being irritated by things I disagree with (often a good thing), marveling at the talents of the younger generations, and generally feeling so lucky to be there to take it all in.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz