by NILS MUHLERT
At what point did you start preparing to read this article? When you arrived at the webpage, when you read the link, or even earlier? Increasingly, evidence demonstrates how we proactively anticipate events, affecting our perception and cognitive performance. Your mood’s influence on memory is obvious, just think about having to re-read whole paragraphs when you’re tired, distracted or sedated. But even when you’re alert, highly dynamic anticipatory biases operating over brief timescales can affect attention and memory, influencing performance on a trial-by-trial basis.
My interest in neuroscience crystallized during University, when I took a course on physiological psychology. The field of neuroscience was not well known or established then. It was magical to discover that I could turn all those questions in my head into a useful scientific career.
NM: Much of your work focuses on understanding selective attention. What triggered your interest in this field?
KN: I have a fundamental curiosity about the brain-mind interface. Narrowing down my interests was a struggle for me. Since the undergraduate years, I tried multi-unit recordings (eyeblink conditioning), recordings and imaging of hippocampal slices, event-related potentials, intracranial recordings, fMRI, TMS, MEG… I dabbled in conditioning, computation, language, visual categories… Finally my research settled in (or at least around) attention. I love working on attention because I see it as providing core infrastructural support for most if not all psychological functions. The prioritization and selection of information to guide adaptive performance (which is how I define attention) are essential in perception, as well as in working memory, long-term memory, language, etc. By studying attention I can work on cognition broadly, both keeping a coherent line of research and keeping alive my spectrum of interests.
NM: Your recent paper on flexible attention suggests that older adults may retain this capacity. Was this a surprise? And are there more resilient brain structures/ networks that support this preserved function?
KN: Recently, we have started exploring various aspects of attention in the aging brain. Contrary to proposals emphasizing deficits in flexible control in the aging brain, we have found that older adults show equivalent benefits of temporal expectation to young adults; are able to prioritize items flexibly in working memory; and show robust memory-based orienting, despite significant deficits in explicit retrieval for those same memories. These studies are highly encouraging. They provide a basis for developing interventions to counteract some of the deleterious effects of cognitive impairments. Our studies also provide a foundation for understanding how various attention-related functions are compromised in different neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric conditions. This is an active area of research in the lab.
NM: What do you consider to be your greatest scientific achievements?
KN: Science is a living process of discovery and refinement of ideas. The two fields that frame my own research – psychology and neuroscience – are still young and far from mature. Most of our ‘theories’ still have a naïve Aristotelian feel to them. I can only hope that future generations will leave us way behind and achieve much higher levels of understanding. I hope all of my specific contributions will eventually be superseded, and that my discoveries can serve as stepping stones for others.
My aims as a scientist are to explore, experiment, learn, and help transform the process of discovery. I value the process over the outcome. The most rewarding moments come when a finding changes my perspective or opens an unexpected door.
Milestones with personal meaning along my career path include: discovering brain areas relevant for orthographic and semantic processing in ventral occipital and temporal cortex, far away from the language network (early 90s); observing the strong relationship between brain networks for spatial attention and oculomotor control (late 90s); revealing the ability to orient attention in time (late 90s) and in working memory (early 00s); and appreciating the forward functions of LTM (mid 00s).
Other great moments came from the excitement of seeing something for the first time or being able to measure something in a new way. Cherished memories include: spending whole days with a big team to image one slice of prefrontal cortex in an experimental fMRI machine when nothing was automated (e.g., the physicists would calculate shimming gradients on the back of an envelope), recording reversals of large semantic potentials in the ventral temporal cortex (early 90s), seeing activations of the frontal eye fields in the raw signal of perfusion-based fMRI (mid 90s), building contraptions to record EEG simultaneously with TMS (mid 00s), deriving population tuning curves of stimulus orientations using M/EEG to study representations in working memory (recently).
NM: Through the OHBM mentoring program we are pairing up novice and experienced researchers to share successful career strategies and avoid common pitfalls. What is the best piece of scientific advice you have received, and from whom?
KN: I feel so fortunate for the people who have inspired and supported me in my scientific path. It’s not the specific words of wisdom that stick out, but the genuine enthusiasm, the examples set, the opportunities created, and the trust shared. I’ve tried to improve along the way, learning from the distinctive qualities of my mentors. Greg McCarthy, my doctoral supervisor, and Marsel Mesulam, my mentor as an early-career fellow, are strong influences. I share, or took from them, a deep appreciation for scholarship, asking big questions, grounding any cognitive study in the available understanding of the relevant physiology and anatomy, thinking of neural processing in terms of circuits and networks, obsessing over experimental design, and following rigorous methodological procedures and controls.
A pivotal inspirational context was scanning at the functional imaging lab or FIL (then still at the Hammersmith Hospital) when I moved to Oxford (1994). (Oxford did not have its own imaging centre then.) I remember my first meeting with Richard Frackowiak who expressed perplexity at why I should come so highly recommended given my measly record of publication, but then welcoming me anyway. The early days of the FIL were electrifying. If I have one sadness about neuroimaging today, is that it may never feel that exciting again.
NM: Last, at OHBM we have been actively pursuing ways to increase the diversity of our leadership, committees and speakers. During your career from junior scientist to senior PI, have you personally encountered bias, or noticed changes in attitudes towards women in neuroscience/ neuroimaging?
KN: I never felt held back. Whether this is because I personally encountered no bias or because I took little notice of it is hard to tell. However, as I have progressed in my career, and witnessed the treatment of colleagues by others, I have come to appreciate that prejudices are real and have deep harmful consequences. Biases, of course, are not restricted to gender, but include many under-represented groups.
I have certainly embraced promoting a culture change toward equal opportunity, treatment, representation, and promotion of individuals across genders, race, and other groups. I feel things are changing for the better. Slowly, maybe, but surely. For me, it is immensely gratifying to meet the new generations of ever more diverse, talented, and confident scientists. I have enjoyed becoming more aware of and engaged with these important issues. The political tides at the moment remind us that it is necessary to work to promote and preserve the values of a just, open, and inclusive civilization.