Q&A with Marta Kutas
Marta Kutas has been smitten from the beginning with ERPs – event-related potentials, measures of electrical activity in the brain. She calls them “temporally exquisite instruments for investigating what the brain does – loosely, the mind.”
Kutas, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, is this year’s recipient of the CNS Distinguished Career Contributions Award. She spoke to CNS about her passion for ERPs and what makes them special, as well as advice she has for students just starting in cognitive neuroscience. It’s a sneak preview of her award lecture at the upcoming CNS conference in San Francisco next month (which, spoiler alert, will also include poems – Kutas calls herself a scientific poet).
The very idea that we can make any sense of patterns of electrical activity at the human scalp in normal individuals doing typical activities…is mind boggling to me on a daily basis.
CNS: Your CNS 2015 talk is entitled “45 years of Cognitive Electrophysiology: neither just psychology nor just the brain but the visible electrical interface between the twain.” What do you mean by that?
Kutas: Recording of electrical brain activity – brain waves – at the scalp makes the electrochemical activity by which brain cells communicate with each other visible to scientists. Scientists can record the brain activity in different experimental situations and, from the different average patterns, make inferences about the mind – about psychological processes.
CNS: What makes ERPs so important and special for brain science?
Kutas: It’s had to study what you can’t see – and we can’t see mental activity. ERPs provide a way of “seeing” aspects of mental activity. ERPs allow scientists to see what goes on in the brain moment by moment, instantaneously – even under circumstances where it is otherwise difficult if not impossible to get any view. For example, ERPs allow a look at the neural fate of a stimulus, that is, what the brain is doing with a stimulus even if a person (including pre-verbal infants or adults who are unable or unwilling to cooperate) has been told to consciously ignore it. Or, they let us see what goes on in the brain before, during, and after stimuli are being studied… or, what is going on when no overt responses to the stimuli are being made before we know whether the stimuli are learned and/or remembered, though later we can find out and look at the differences in brain processing during study for items we subsequently remember versus forget. In other words, we can investigate in what ways and when the nature of the learning strategies impacts how learning takes place as it takes place.
CNS: What findings have you found most exciting coming out of electrophysiology work?
Kutas: The very idea that we can make any sense of patterns of electrical activity at the human scalp in normal individuals doing typical activities – anticipating, preparing, predicting, sensing, perceiving, studying/learning, choosing/deciding, attending/ignoring, (mis)understanding, reading, listening, looking at cartoons, faces, videos, gestures, remembering, developing, dealing with various diseases, etc. – is mind boggling to me on a daily basis.
CNS: What are you most excited to still learn?
- Ways EEG can be influenced to impact ongoing perception, cognition, emotion, and action – and the possible role of prosthetic devices and genetics in that
- Whether EEG can, in any form, be harnessed for mental telepathy as Hans Berger hoped when he discovered EEG in the late 1920s
Everything needs to be read and considered – even papers written before we were born.
CNS: What are the biggest challenges for the field of electrophysiology?
Kutas: Not everyone is like everyone else. Not every stimulus is like every other stimulus, no matter how similar they might seem on the surface. Figuring out which differences are important and which are inconsequential is a big challenge. Understanding individual differences is a big challenge.
ERPs are typically averages and they represent brain responses that are synchronized – that are in phase with particular events but there is brain activity that is not systematically in phase with events. So, a challenge is to combine what we learn from these different sources of electrical brain activity.
And, then of course coming up with clever and incisive experimental designs is always a challenge because it’s only within the experimental design or context in which electrophysiological responses are recorded that any systematic patterns (effects) can be interpreted.
Another challenge is just keeping up with the literature. There’s too much. Some people don’t have time to read entire studies, just abstracts, but the devil’s in the details and for those, everything needs to be read and considered – even papers written before we were born.
CNS: How did you become interested in science and cognitive neuroscience in particular?
Kutas: I am deeply interested in human perception, cognition, emotion, and action – the whole enchilada:
- How and why we do what we do, especially what we find funny and drives our curiosity
- What we have control over and can thus change and what we have no control over but should know to better understand ourselves and others
From the beginning, I thought that real understanding of these sorts of issues required one foot in psychology and one in biology – the mind and the body – and that turned out to be cognitive neuroscience.
CNS: What advice do you have for students just starting in cognitive neuroscience?
Kutas: If you’re not passionate about research, forget it. Get started as early as possible working in research. Don’t assume that everything you do should be for publication or should “work.” Learn how to collaborate. Know what you are doing and why. Ask questions, questions, and more questions.
Look at your raw data carefully and often. By the time you do your formal analyses, you should have a good idea of what some of your effects are likely to be.
Don’t be easily discouraged. Don’t give up or if you do, don’t feel bad about yourself. Expend your efforts on potentially answerable questions. Work with people you like and respect and at least sort of understand.
Be humble and keep reading. Listen.
CNS: You immigrated from Hungary when you were young and have lived in various places in the U.S. since, other than a brief time at Hebrew University… What do you think about the state of international research and collaboration?
Kutas: Money is tight everywhere, but if you want to collaborate with others from outside the U.S. or welcome students/visiting faculty to your lab, there’s plenty of opportunity to do so. I’ve always found it a mutually valuable experience. There’s scientific and societal value in educating and being educated by men and women from all over the world. It would be great if the pipelines for exchange were more formal and supported officially. It’s a small thing that could have great impact on trust and care among peoples, not to mention a greater sense of membership in the world community.
CNS: What are you hopes for the future of the field?
Kutas: I hope that history isn’t forgotten, that we don’t go in circles, that science is driven by curiosity, that we appreciate the importance of experimental design, that we stay open minded, that we train and allow more young people to experience the joys – and hard work – of research.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
Kutas will deliver her award lecture at the CNS annual meeting on Saturday, March 28 at 5:30pm.