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MODERATOR: Carl Zimmer
PARTICIPANTS: Heather Berlin, Mélanie Boly, Christof Koch, Gary Marcus, Rafael Yuste
DATE: Friday, May 31, 2013
TIME: 7:00 PM-8:30 PM
VENUE: Lipton Hall – D’Agostino Hall

Philosophers remain puzzled over the meaning of consciousness, but now scientists are asking another question: How do you measure it? In this salon, we reveal the techniques and technologies that scientists are developing to peer inside the human brain and eavesdrop on neurons.


The World Science Festival’s annual salon series offers in-depth conversations with leading scientists, extending the discussion of the Festival’s premiere public programs to graduate students, postdocs, faculty and well-informed members of the general public.

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Science Writer

Award-winning science writer Carl Zimmer explores the frontiers of biology in his writing. His work appears regularly in The New York Times and many magazines, and he is the author of twelve books, including A Planet of Viruses.

Zimmer is a contributing editor and columnist for Discover, and his blog, The Loom, appears on the magazine’s web site. He has won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science Journalism Award twice, in 2004 and 2009.



Heather Berlin is a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She explores the complex interactions of the human brain and mind with the goal of contributing to improved treatment and prevention of impulsive and compulsive psychiatric disorders. She is also interested in the neural basis of consciousness and dynamic unconscious processes. Berlin is a visiting scholar at the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, and was a visiting assistant professor at Vassar College, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH)/University of Zurich, and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Berlin is passionate about public outreach and science communication. She is a presenter on the Discovery Channel and has appeared on the BBC World Service, BBC Radio 4, and StarTalk Radio. She received her doctorate from the University of Oxford and master of public health from Harvard University.


Melanie Boly is a neurologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research and at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She conducts research investigating the neural correlates of decreased consciousness during vegetative state, anesthesia, and sleep using functional neuroimaging techniques. For eleven years she has worked with Steven Laureys at the Coma Science Group at University of Liege in Belgium. In the past she has worked with Adrian Owen in Cambridge, UK to design active paradigms (such as ‘imagine playing tennis’) capable of detecting consciousness in unresponsive brain damaged patients. She completed her postdoc with Karl Friston at University College London in 2010. She is currently working at the Center for Sleep and Consciousness in Madison, Wisconsin with Giulio Tononi. Her present work aims to develop a theoretical approach to the study of the neural correlates of consciousness in states such as sleep, anesthesia, or brain damage using functional brain imaging.


Born in the American Midwest, Christof Koch grew up in Holland, Germany, Canada, and Morocco. He studied physics and philosophy at the University of Tübingen in Germany and was awarded his Ph.D. in biophysics in 1982. After four years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he joined the California Institute of Technology as a professor of biology and engineering. His research is focused on the biophysics of nerve cells, and the neuronal and computational basis of visual perception, attention, and consciousness. In 2011, he became chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, where he leads a ten year, large-scale, high through-put effort to build brain observatories to map, analyze, and understand the cerebral cortex.

Research Psychologist

Gary Marcus, NYU scientist and bestselling author, has been described by the New York Times as “one of the country’s best known cognitive psychologists”. He is the author of four books, including Kluge, The Algebraic Mind, and the New York Times Bestseller, Guitar Zero. His next book, The Future of the Brain: Essays By The World’s Leading Neuroscientists will be published in October, Marcus frequently blogs on science and artificial intelligence for The New Yorker.


Rafael Yuste is professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Columbia University. He was born in Madrid, where he obtained his M.D. at the Universidad Autónoma. After a brief period in Sydney Brenner’s laboratory in Cambridge, UK, he performed Ph.D. studies with Larry Katz in Torsten Wiesel’s laboratory at Rockefeller University and was a postdoctoral student of David Tank at Bell Labs. In 1996 he joined the department of biological sciences at Columbia University. In 2005 he became HHMI investigator and co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Circuits at Columbia. Yuste has pioneered the application of optical imaging techniques to study the structure and function of the cerebral cortex. He recently helped launched the BRAIN Initiative, an large-scale scientific project to systematically record and manipulate the activity of complete neural circuits. Yuste has obtained many awards, including the NYC Mayor’s Young Investigator Award.