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Q&A with Prof. Nancy Kanwisher ‘80 (CPW Preview!) by Matt McGann '00

One of the CPW Keynote Speakers, Brain and Cognitive Sciences Professor Nancy Kanwisher '80 PhD '86, answers a few questions in advance of her big talk on Friday.

At this Friday’s Campus Preview Weekend Keynote (10am, Kresge Auditorium), there will be two prominent faculty keynote speakers. To highlight their talks, I’ll feature a mini-interview with each of them.

Prof. Nancy Kanwisher received her Bachelor Of Science in Course 7 (Biology) from MIT in 1980, and her Ph.D. in Course 9 (Brain & Cognitive Sciences), also from MIT, in 1986. Since 1997, she has been a member of the Brain & Cognitive Sciences faculty at MIT. Here’s an official biography, followed by an official photograph, followed by the Q&A:

Nancy Kanwisher is the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a founding member of the McGovern Institute. She joined the MIT faculty in 1997, and prior to that was a faculty member at UCLA and Harvard University. In 1999, she received the National Academy of Sciences Troland Research Award. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2005 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.


Q. Can you tell us about your current research work?

A. In my lab we are tackling one of the most fundamental questions any scientist can ask: What is the nature of the human mind? Much of our work uses a brain imaging method called functional MRI, which enables us to watch small parts of the human brain turn on and off as people think different thoughts. We have already discovered several parts of the brain that are very specialized for particular tasks, like recognizing faces and recognizing places. My colleague Rebecca Saxe has even discovered a brain region that is specialized for thinking about what another person is thinking. We are now trying to better understand each of these brain regions–what exactly they do, how they do it, and how they arise in development–as well as looking for other special-purpose parts of the brain and mind.

Q. Can you tell us about an undergraduate course that you teach?

A. In my undergrad course students go straight to the cutting edge of brain imaging research. They learn not only what is known and what is not about the functional organization of the human brain – they also learn how to understand, critique, and design brain imaging experiments. By the end of the course they can read a recent journal article that uses brain imaging methods, and usually find its flaws and design their own better version of the same experiment. They also learn what kinds of inferences can be drawn from what kind of data. Finally, students also give talks in class, and get lots of individualized feedback to improve their speaking and writing skills.

Q. Why did you choose to come to MIT?

A. MIT is the most intellectually exciting environment I have ever seen. It is also also the closest thing I have ever found to a true meritocracy. At MIT no one cares what you look like, how you dress (to put it mildly), who you know, or whether you are 16 years old or 60. They only care if you have an interesting idea.

Q. What advice would you give to a student beginning their undergraduate years in Brain & Cognitive Sciences?

A. Get involved in research as soon as possible. Lots of universities have good courses. What is most special about MIT is the fact that our undergraduates can become central players in the hottest, most revolutionary, most life-changing research going on anywhere in the world.


I’ll be one of the people in charge of passing around the microphones after Prof. Kanwisher’s speech on Friday — what questions might you want to ask?

5 responses to “Q&A with Prof. Nancy Kanwisher ‘80 (CPW Preview!)”

  1. Lauren '14 says:

    Thank you for this I will definately be stopping by! The brain is absolutely fascinating to me and I can’t wait to start research on it!

  2. Amethyst says:

    Cognition! Neurons! Emergence! Self-referencing mathematical patterns!! Whoohoo…I love thinking about thinking smile I’m reading a very interesting book right now called “I Am A Strange Loop”, by Douglas R. Hofstader. (Is that spelled right?) You might like it, Lauren ’14.

    PS 2 things: 1) Does anyone know what schools have good undergraduate work in BCS/N besides MIT, Stanford, Harvard etc? Or the comparative strength of UT Dallas’ program, despite it being a lesser-known public school?
    2) What is a good, inexpensive but informative and usable starter textbook on robotics?

  3. Armin says:

    This may be a silly question to ask from her, but:

    Can we one day manipulate our brain? Like altering our memory or do some tasks like learning a new language just by making the pathways in our brain artificially? Copying some parts of the brain from one person to another. Make an archive of someone’s brain to cure alzheimer?