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SSP Distinguished Speaker: Nancy Kanwisher on Imaging the Brain

Friday, May 27, 2022
In person event (for current Stanford affiliates only):
John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Rotunda
Stanford Neurosciences Building (290 Jane Stanford Way)

Remote simulcast open to all by Zoom
Photo of Nancy Kanwisher

Symbolic Systems Program

The Annual Symbolic Systems Distinguished Speaker Lecture for 2022

Functional Imaging of the Human Brain: A Window into the Architecture of the Mind
Nancy Kanwisher
Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Friday May 27, 2022
12:15-1:45 pm

In person event (for current Stanford affiliates only):
John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Rotunda
Stanford Neurosciences Building (290 Jane Stanford Way)
NOTE: Due to Covid-19 restrictions on building occupancy, only current Stanford students, faculty, and staff may attend this event in person

Remote simulcast open to all: Zoom meeting


The last 20 years of brain imaging research has revealed the functional organization of the human brain in glorious detail. This work has identified a set of regions of the cortex, each of which is specifically engaged in a particular mental task, like the recognition of faces and places, perceiving speech sounds, understanding the meaning of a sentence, and thinking about another person’s thoughts. Other brain regions play a more general role in intelligence, getting engaged when we perform nearly any difficult mental task at all. Each of these regions is present, in approximately the same location, in virtually every normal person. I like to think of this initial rough sketch of the functional organization of the brain as a diagram of the major components of the human mind, a kind of picture of who we are as perceivers and thinkers. But at the same time this new map is just the barest beginning, revealing a vast landscape of unanswered questions. What other specialized regions exist in the cortex, and what are they specialized for? What exactly is computed and represented in each region? What are the structural connections of each region, and how does information flow among them? How do these regions arise in development, and how much of the organization of the brain is specified at birth?  How did brain regions specialized for uniquely human mental abilities evolve? Perhaps most fundamentally, why, from a computational point of view, is  the brain organized the way it is, with this combination of highly specialized brain regions, along with very general-purpose systems? These open questions are much harder to answer, but I will mention a few tantalizing glimmers that are beginning to emerge from labs around the world.


Nancy Kanwisher is the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a founding member of the McGovern Institute. She joined the MIT faculty in 1997, and prior to that served on the faculty at UCLA and Harvard University. In 1999, she received the National Academy of Sciences Troland Research Award. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2005 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.

The Kanwisher lab has used brain imaging to identify regions of the brain that play highly specialized roles in perception and cognition, including the perception of faces, places, and bodies, as well as various aspects of social cognition and language processing. Each of these regions can be identified robustly in a short functional scan in essentially every normal subject; they are part of the basic functional organization of the human mind and brain. In ongoing work the Kanwisher lab is working to better characterize the precise computations that occur in each region, to discover new functionally specific brain regions, and to understand how these regions get wired up in development and how they work together to produce cognition.


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