Rebecca Saxe – Cognitive neuroscientist
When you look at this picture, what do you see? This picture is an MRI image of a mother and her child that I made in my lab at MIT. You might see it as sweet and touching, a kind of modern Madonna, an image of universal love. We can’t see clothes or hairstyles or even skin color.
From what we do see, the biology in the brains, this could be any mother and child, or even father and child, at any time and place in history, having an experience that any human could recognize. Or you might see it as disturbing, a reminder that our human bodies are much too fragile as houses for ourselves.
MRIs are usually medical images and often bad news. Each white spot in that picture is a blood vessel that could clog. Each tiny fold of those brains could harbor a tumor. The baby’s brain maybe looks particularly vulnerable, pressed against the soft, thin shell of its skull. I see those things, universal emotions, frightening fragility, but I also see one of the most amazing transformations in biology and one of the hardest problems for science. Where do we come from?
Less than a year earlier, that baby’s brain was a tiny clump of cells, basically similar to the clump of cells that would become the brain of a mouse or a fly or a sea slug. And then some combination of biological machinery and environmental experience taught those cells how to develop into a human baby’s brain and then a human adult brain with all the special human capacities for language and empathy and morality.