by Aparajita Bhandari

“Every great wizard in history has started out as nothing more than we are now. Students. If they can do it, why not us?”— Harry Potter and the Order of the Phonenix

On October 29th I attended the first evening talk in the Alumni Speaker Series. The series is a new event that has grown out of the Dinner@NEW initiative, in which up to 20 upper-year students meet with an alumna or alumnus over dinner in an informal and intimate setting: students get to ask alumni about their professional lives and alumni in turn offer insights about their experience since graduation and how they ended up in their particular fields. Aimed at a wider audience of alumni and students, the Alumni Speaker Series involves New College graduates coming in to give talks on their work since leaving New College and the University of Toronto.

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Dave Hayes

Dr. Dave Hayes

The first alumnus to come in was Dr. Dave Hayes, a neuroscientist who graduated from New in 2003 with a BSc. Dr. Hayes went on to accomplish many great things in his field. He received his PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Alberta then performed research at the Institute of Mental Health Research in Ottawa, Toronto Western Hospital, Union College in Ohio and the University of Cambridge in England.

His research looks at brain circuits related to emotion and considers how dysfunction can precipitate illness. Building on his previous examinination of the biochemical, neuronal and conceptual bases of emotional experience, his brain-based investigations of pleasant and unpleasant experiences bridge the fields of neuroscience, neurology, psychiatry, psychology and philosophy.

While this list of accomplishments is certainly very impressive and it is important for us to recognize the feats of our alumni, the point of the alumni speaker series is not to just parade the work of our graduates but rather provide an opportunity for the entire New community to start a dialogue involving the work our alumni are doing. So without further ado, I’ll delve into the talk itself.

“Why do I need a brain?” This was the question posed to the audience by Dr. Hayes at the beginning of the evening, the question central to his entire talk. Now, as a psychology student, I could think of quite a few reasons I needed a brain, ranging from the biological (to maintain homeostasis so the rest of my body could survive) to the sociological (to bring together the context of everyday life so I could maintain social relations). However, after taking some answers from the audience similar to my own, Dr. Hayes began to examine all the ways our brains fail us. He explained that although our brains are good at many things, one thing they are not always good at is accurately reflecting reality.

This is an ambiguous figure. Once you see the hidden image you’ll never unsee it!
(Don’t see it? Read this.)

Rubin vase (from www.semieh.com)

A classic ambiguous figure is the Rubin’s vase that can also be seen as two faces looking at each other. Note that we cannot maintain two interpretations simultaneously, and we slip back and forth between one and the other. (Image from www.semieh.com)

Dr. Hayes explained that our brains can often deceive us:  our visual, auditory, emotional and social systems all are biased and use shortcuts that prevent us from ever having an accurate view of reality.

checkerboard shadow illusion

The checker shadow illusion was a cool illusion I had never encountered before. The squares marked A and B are the exact same shade of grey!
Here’s the explanation.

 

There was time after the talk was over for questions and many people, from current students to alumni well versed in neuroscience, asked engaging and interesting questions relating both to the topics of the evening and the field of neuroscience as a whole.

As a student, and especially as a student interested in pursuing a PhD related to the brain, the evening was very inspirational. Dr. Hayes is doing work that he truly believes in, and which makes a real impact on people’s lives.

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Dr. Hayes wanted to leave us with the message that the limitations of our brains shouldn’t define us. (Image from Dr. Hayes’ presentation)

Looking around the room after the question and answer period was over and people were getting refreshments, I felt grateful that I’m part of a community of people that are trying to better the world, and I’m also grateful that this community wants me to know that I can help better it too.

There are still two more evenings in the Alumni Speaker Series so don’t worry if you couldn’t make this one. Visit the New College website for more information. Comment below about why you think we need to understand our brains or to tell me about your favourite illusion!