Episode 37. The creative joy of exploring the human brain with Alex Cayco-Gajic
Updated: Mar 15
Welcome back! To those of you who've been listening to this podcast, thank you, I’m very grateful, and to new listeners, welcome! It’s wonderful to be back, and I cannot wait for you to discover my new guests and solo episodes.
Season 3 is about exploration, so we're going to search and find out more about creativity and hopefully, in the process, about ourselves, and how we relate to the world and the people around us.
My students come from all over the world, work, or have worked, in a wide range of fields, which gives me an opportunity to learn about topics I would otherwise not come across, or discuss with anyone else. Such is the case with Alex Cayco-Gajic, a junior professor at the Group for Neural Theory at the prestigious school, l’École Normale Supérieure, in Paris.
Alex received a PhD in applied mathematics at the University of Washington in Seattle, then joined a neuroscience lab at University College London to study the cerebellum and apply her quantitative background to analyse large-scale recordings of hundreds of neurons. She’s interested in how different brain regions coordinate during motor and cognitive behaviours and has talked about her teaching and research with such passion and eloquence during our lessons, that I decided to invite her on the podcast to talk about the human brain, but also what makes her work so intensely creative.
She describes taking a leap from applied mathematics to embrace the messiness and frequent change of pace of systems neuroscience, where the frontier of knowledge is constantly moving and boundaries on previous theories are constantly being pushed, leading her to review her own assumptions and methods on a regular basis and to come up with new creative approaches to problem-solving.
Through striking examples, including my favourite, the glowing neuron, Alex not only shares her excitement about her work, but gives us a vivid and engaging picture of a field, which often seems daunting and impenetrable. We talk about the link between basic science and applied research, machine learning, language acquisition, ethics, what it’s like to work in an interdisciplinary department, but also the resilience, flexibility, and adaptability needed in her work, which often makes her feel like she’s riding one exciting wave after another.
Just like my conversation with maths teacher, Rob Leslie, helped us see mathematics in a whole new creative light, this is an opportunity to explore science, leaving behind our assumptions and experience from school, to discover what it’s like, and what it feels like, to explore one of the most complex subjects ever studied, the human brain.
The Guardian article on artificial intelligence
Alex's book recommendations:
Models of the Mind by Grace Lindsay
This is the only popular science book she knows that is about computational models of the brain and mind. Grace is a computational neuroscientist, a great science writer, and a good friend of hers. She can really vouch for this book being well written, interesting, and scientifically accurate. It's quite recent so very up-to-date.
The Spike by Mark Humphries
For those interested in systems neuroscience (the more experimental side), this is a recent book by another great science writer, who is a neuroscientist in Alex's field.
Oliver Sacks' books. For anyone curious about the human mind, Oliver Sacks is a fantastic writer. His classic book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was one of Alex's early introductions to neuroscience and left an impression on her.
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil
For those interested in the ethical implications of AI. Strictly speaking, this book is about the big data revolution and algorithms, not specifically AI which is an overlapping field. But the ethical issues are the same, and this book is a great description of the real ethical challenges posed by AI to our society today (not the "existentialist" fantasies of singularities or robots with superhuman intelligence!).
ABOUT THE CREATIVITY FOR ALL PODCAST
A maths teacher can be creative. So can a financial adviser, a community builder, and a yoga teacher. Not to mention a speed painter, a potter, or an actor!
Creativity is everywhere and I love nothing more than to explore it in The Creativity for All Podcast, either by focusing on a theme – such as perfectionism, feeding your creative brain, or the pressure to be creative – in my solo episodes, or through my conversations with all manner of creative people.
I want to challenge the perception of creativity and, in the process, debunk many myths attached to it: it's painful, for artists and the chosen few, etc.
My guests and I are keen to zoom in and dissect the origin of an idea, the impulse that makes us engage with our own creativity, with the hope that it will inspire listeners to get creative too.
My podcast is designed for anyone who’s already being creative, or is tempted to use their creativity, in particular those of you who think they are not creative or can never be. I would love to change your mind!
The Creativity for All Podcast is sponsored by Blue as an Orange, where we believe in creativity through communication, and offer mentoring and coaching for aspiring writers and tailored language tuition for individuals and companies.