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Brains Behind the Institute

Rosa Cao, Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute

Rosa Cao

Assistant professor of philosophy

Everything in science is philosophy at some level.

When you're doing science, you're trying to understand the world, which requires you to make decisions about what you'll accept as data, what theoretical framework you’ll work within, and sometimes even which entities or phenomena you'll accept as real.

So, when you choose the way you do science, you already have some philosophical commitments in the background. For example, if you think what's critical to the brain is computation, and computation is "that special thing that neurons do," then you might focus on neural spikes. Or you might build computational models that capture some aspect of an interesting cognitive capacity, rather than teasing apart the details of how the brain achieves it biologically. You might not tag these decisions as philosophical - but they are. 

Exploring these choices is part of what I work on, at the intersection of philosophy of mind, neuroscience and cognitive science. I majored in physics and biology, and then studied neuroscience in graduate school, where I became fascinated by astrocytes. There are more astrocytes than neurons in the brain, and astrocytes and other glial cells play significant functional roles. Astrocytes in visual cortex respond to perceptual stimuli in a very similar way to neurons – and yet the term “information processing” is usually reserved to describe neural activity.  Why? What distinguishes information processing from other biological activities? Why say that neurons represent the world, but not other cells? I returned to graduate school for philosophy to explore issues like these.

I really believe we'll have more success in pursuing answers to our research questions if we consider them from multiple perspectives. The world doesn't tell you how to do science. You have to decide how you're going to poke the world to better understand it. While it's important to learn the techniques needed in your specialty, it's also valuable to keep asking whyyou're choosing your research questions and what makes them important.

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