BACK AROUND 1979, when Farah was a graduate student in experimental psychology at Harvard Uni- versity, she asked permission to cross-register for a course in neurology. Her adviser responded by telling her that she obviously hadn't understood the basic principle of cognitive psychology -- that the mind is "software," and that she wasn't going to learn anything about it by looking at the brain, which is the "hardware." That was the received knowledge at the time -- and yet by then, according to Farah, psychologists had already reached an impasse, unable to answer some of the field's fundamental questions while needing more real-life checks on their theories. Neuroscientists, on the other hand, knew all about the brain's neurons and synapses, but lacked the theories to assemble the masses of complex knowledge.
Since then, there has been what Farah calls a "scientific revolution," and the two groups of scientists who once had "nothing to say to each other" are now "falling all over each other" to collaborate. At Penn, she notes, the Biological Basis of Behavior has become one of the most popular majors for undergraduates, while both the David Mahoney Institute of Neurological Sciences and the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science have been trying to create bridges among psychologists, information scientists, and neurologists.
Some 12 years ago, when Farah was a postdoctoral student at MIT, she got a call from a behavioral neurology fellow at the University of Florida named Todd E. Feinberg, C'74. Feinberg, now chief of the Yarmon Division of Neurobehavior and Alzheimer's Disease at Manhattan's Beth Israel Medical Center, had heard from his adviser that Farah was studying mental imagery, a subject he wanted to know more about. So he "just kind of called me out of the blue," in Farah's words. The two have stayed in close touch over the years, and when McGraw-Hill asked Feinberg to edit a new textbook on neuropsychology a few years ago, he asked Farah to be his co-editor.
Her first response was to say no. But when she thought about it some more, it occurred to her that many neurologists "still get 19th-century education in medical school when it comes to how the mind works." Working on the textbook, she felt, would be a great opportunity to bring some of the newer, evidence-based cognitive theories to neurologists and clinicians. So she signed on with Feinberg, and last year McGraw-Hill published their 873-page Behavioral Neurology and Neuropsychology, which received a four-star ("excellent") rating from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings and kudos for its interdisciplinary approach and fusion of theory and clinical practice. (A reviewer in The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, praised the pair's efforts to integrate traditional behavioral neurology and modern cognitive neuropsychology, and said that the result was a "comprehensive and comprehensible textbook.")
Consider the following passage from the chapter by Dr. Marcus E. Raichle, professor of neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine, who pointed out that current brain-mapping studies are not merely a modern version of phrenology, in which single areas of the brain were thought to represent specific thought-processes and emotions. Instead, writes Raichle, "just as diverse instruments of a large orchestra are played in a coordinated fashion to produce a symphony, a group of diverse brain areas, each performing quite elementary and unique mental operations, work together in a coordinated fashion to produce human behavior."
But when one of those instruments gets damaged, the symphony can turn strangely discordant.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 3/13/98