Brain and Visual Perception: The Story of a 25-Year Collaboration

Brain and Visual Perception: The Story of a 25-Year Collaboration

Thursday, March 31, 2005



Scientists' understanding of two central problems in neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy has been greatly influenced by the work of David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel: (1) What is it to see? This relates to the machinery that underlies visual perception, and (2) How do we acquire the brain's mechanisms for vision? This is the nature–nurture question as to whether the nerve connections responsible for vision are innate or whether they develop through experience in the early life of an animal or human.

Drs. Wiesel and Hubel will discuss their collaboration, which began in 1958, lasted until about 1982, and led to the Nobel Prize in 1981. They will also talk about their new book Brain and Visual Perception: The Story of a 25-Year Collaboration, which opens with short autobiographies of both men, describes the state of the field when they started, and tells about the beginnings of their collaboration. It emphasizes the importance of various mentors in their lives, especially Stephen W. Kuffler, who opened up the field by studying the cat retina in 1950, and founded the department of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, where most of their work was done.

The main part of the book contains the most important publications of Hubel and Wiesel. Each reprinted paper is preceded by a foreword that tells how they went about the research, what the difficulties and the pleasures were, and whether they felt a paper was important and why. Each is also followed by an afterword describing how the paper was received and what developments have occurred since its publication.

The reader learns things that are often absent from typical scientific publications, including whether the work was difficult, fun, personally rewarding, exhilarating, or just plain tedious. The book ends with a summary of the authors' views of the present state of the field. This is much more than a collection of reprinted papers. Above all it tells the story of an unusual scientific collaboration that was hugely enjoyable and served to transform an entire branch of neurobiology.

In 1981 both authors were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine. David H. Hubel is John Franklin Enders University Professor of Neurobiology, Emeritus, at Harvard Medical School. Torsten N. Wiesel is director of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for Mind, Brain and Behavior and president emeritus of The Rockefeller University. He is also secretary general of the Human Frontier Science Program, president of the International Brain Research Organization, and chairman of the Board of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Eric R. Kandel is Professor of Neurobiology, Columbia University and a Senior Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is also the founding Director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board and Co-Founder of Memory Pharmaceuticals. Dr. Kandel is the recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. He shared the prize with fellow recipients Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard.

Speakers: Torsten N. Wiesel, The Rockefeller University; and David H. Hubel, Harvard Medical School, authors
Introductory Remarks: Eric R. Kandel, Columbia University