lili's musings

the different types of neuroscientists

Having worked in a few different kinds of neuroscience labs, I thought it might be fun to catalogue the different kinds of neuroscientists I've seen working there. They're all fun but at that times may not mesh well together. Each of these is a composite of a couple different friends. I've worn a couple of these hats over the years.


To the psychologists, neuroscience is about the mind, first and foremost. They tend to prioritize the study of humans above all, sometimes even going as far as to dismiss animal research as not studying a representative mind. Their favorite things are MRI machines, psychophysics experiments, and discussions of consciousness over a bottle of wine at sunset.


You can tell the techies apart at a neuroscience conference by stating that the brain is nothing like a computer and looking for those with heavy frowns. These scientists want to understand the brain because, to them, it's one of the most complex computers. They love to make analogies to electrical circuits. They do tend to be well familiar with actual computers, and so have built really complex computational models that only they understand. These often involve manifolds, latent spaces, and recurrent networks.


To test for physiologists, just utter "consciousness" and watch who winces. To them, studying neuroscience is about understanding the signals that the neurons are carrying in a large network. They emphasize rigorous methods like mashing electrodes into neurons and playing with genetics. As a result they almost always study non-human animals (humans are animals too, they'll tell you), and look down on cognitive psychologists for what they perceive to be less rigorous methods.


Like the techies, the biologists speak an arcane language. However, instead of circuits and algorithms, they talk about proteins, synapses, and neurotransmitters. They see the brain as a mass of cells and chemicals and wonder why other neuroscientists don't see it this way. Their intricate knowledge of biology allows them to dissect how neurons work into dense papers that only they understand. They build the tools for measuring and manipulating nervous systems that everyone else uses but only some really understand, to the chagrin of the biologists.


The cyborgs watched the Borg on Star Trek and thought "I want to be like that". They love science fiction generally and find it highly inspiring for their own research. They might help others achieve their cyborg dreams, building neural implants to let people control robotic arms and quadcopters. Alternatively, they might just play around and see how far they can push their own bodies.


"Look, the brain is pretty much an open non-equilibrium thermodynamic system. Simple, right?" is something a physicist would totally say. They see the brain as part of the world and describable by physical laws. They see memories as attractors and constantly remind us that the brain is operating the edge of chaos, ready to flip to full chaos if some control parameters become just slightly out of tune. A subset urge us to consider how the world interacts mechanically with the body. They universally love dimensional analysis, scaling laws, and snarky physics anecdotes.


Doctors just want to help people. They might have medical degrees to prove their dedication to the trade, but not always. Their primary concern is how their research will lead to a cure for a disease or, at the very least, an alleviation of some symptom. Figuring out how the brain works, however fascinating, is secondary. They usually focus on a disease and target it in all the different ways. They may work with patients or with animal models of their chosen disease, really anything that gets the job done.


Loves random critters and field trips. Majored in anthropology or ecology in college but then got a lab job. Still dresses like they’re ready to go collecting specimens at a drop of a hat. Won’t stop talking about Darwin, predation, and reproduction. (courtesy of Bing Brunton)

#academia #neuroscience