Christof Koch Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Consciousness and the Biology of the Brain: conversation with Christof Koch, Lois and Victor Troendle Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at Caltech, March 24, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Christof, welcome to Berkeley.

Good morning, Harry.

Where were you born and raised?

In the Midwest, in Kansas City, believe it or not.

Surprising. How did you happen to be in America for your birth?

I talk like our governor does.

That's right!

My parents were diplomats with the German state department, so they happened to be in Kansas City because there turned out to be lots of Germans who emigrated there after the war. So, I moved around. I have a French Baccalaureate, and then I lived in Morocco, and in Holland, and in Canada.

So, a citizen of the world. Looking back, how have your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

Since I moved every three years, I [found it] difficult to acquire long-term friends, so we are a very tight family. All my intellectual upbringing, and my desires, my passions, I have from my parents.

When did you get the science bug, so to speak? What led you into science?

From eight, nine, or ten I wanted to be a zoologist. I wanted to be a zoo director and a zoologist. Then somewhere at age thirteen or fourteen I wanted to be a physicist, and then I studied physics. I guess it shows you the importance of role models. I grew up reading books about Einstein and Heisenberg and Planck, and all these physicists, and that was terribly influential for me. When I decided upon a university -- well, I never really made a conscious decision, it was always clear I was going to go to a university and study physics. That's what I did.

When one looks at your degrees and the subject matter, you have covered the gamut of the sciences. You have a French Baccalaureate, you studied physics and philosophy at Tübingen in Germany, a Masters in physics and a Ph.D. in "Nonlinear Information Processing in Dendritic Trees of Arbitrary Geometry."

That's correct.

So, science has come to you easily? Was there a natural coming together with these different subjects, or did one set of problems lead you to another set of problems?

Both. I always wanted to be a scientist, at least from a very early age on. I love science, I love the process of doing science. If I could, I'd like to know everything there is about the world. Of course, as you get older you have to concentrate on one particular aspect of it, and so I chose to concentrate on the brain, how the brain processes information, in what way is it like a computer, in what way is it different from a computer, and then over the last twenty years, on the problem of consciousness, possibly influenced because of the many philosophers I read.

Is it fair to call you a neurobiologist?


Help us understand the skills and temperament required to do that kind of work, before we talk about the work [itself].

It's different from being a physicist. In some parts of science, like in physics, there are a few deep principles, like general relativity, or like electrodynamics, and then you can use a few principles to explain a large number of facts in the universe, like the cosmos and its evolution, and how [galaxies] move inside the cosmos, and how planets act. If I drop my keys, why do they fall to the floor, etc.

Biology's a very different character. In biology, there are very few common principles, except maybe the theory of evolution. There's a gigantic, a gargantuan number of facts that you have to know and have to assemble, so you have to be in the field a long time. So, child prodigies exist maybe in mathematics or in music, or maybe in some areas of theoretical physics, but don't exist in biology because in biology you just have to know a huge number of facts, which of course takes time to acquire, because each biological system is an accident of evolution, and to understand it, you have to understand its unique circumstances, and how this animal's different from that animal. You have to know molecular biology, and biochemistry, and neuroscience, and psychology, and the theory of evolution. So, it requires a much larger number of facts to explain any given observation.

What about temperament? I know, looking at your website, that you're adventuresome, you're a mountain climber, and so on. Is that just you personally, or what about the temperament of somebody doing this work that brings together so many fields?

You have to love risk, which I guess is what you have to love if you like to climb rocks and mountains. You have to be in it for the long term. It takes a long time, you have to be very patient, and you have to love the process. You have to love the process, because the action itself takes place over many years. You have to fight to get money to do the research, the research itself is very difficult, it's technically very demanding, it takes long, long hours, and then you have to fight to get it published and get it accepted by your peers. It can take five, six, seven years for a single experiment, to run through this entire life-cycle of one experiment. So, you have to be passionate about it, and you have to be passionate about the process, and the rewards that are long-term, distant in the future. The objective, tenure, you get a good salary, something like that. You have to do it because you love the act of thinking about, and trying to understand, a phenomenon, trying to collect data and sift through the data, and try to sort the chaff from the wheat.

Next page: Neurobiology

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