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“Mark is a theoretical neuroscientist of the first rank, and has an amazing ability to systematize a dizzyingly broad range of phenomena,” says Selmer Bringsjord, professor and head of the Cognitive Science Department. “We are profoundly fortunate to have him at Rensselaer. He is a key component of a department that, while not large, achieves great range across cognitive science.”

Finding X, Why, and Z

While most cognitive scientists attempt to understand how the human brain performs specific tasks, Changizi focuses on uncovering why it works the way it does to begin with.

“What drives me is the opportunity to understand the basic reasons for why a biological system does what it does, looks the way it does, or is organized the way it is,” says Changizi. “My research is dedicated to carrying out the fundamental work about why we are the way we are.”

Changizi says the “how” and “why” of research go hand in hand, and he often uses analogy to illustrate why both parts of the research puzzle must work in tandem to form a clear picture of human cognitive tasks. “If a group of people cut off from the everyday world were to stumble upon a stapler, and the object and its function was foreign to them, you can imagine how difficult it might be to figure out how it works,” Changizi says. “Without knowing what it’s used for, they might shoot staples through the air and say ‘this is the mechanism that causes that,’ or they might start breaking or bending it in ways it’s not meant to move and say ‘if you bend it this way, it does this.’ They could be analyzing infinitely many mechanisms that the stapler could carry out that have nothing to do with what it’s designed for.”

That’s where Changizi’s research comes in.





Bulging Grid | Looming toward the image leads to a perception that it is bulging in the center.

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“You can only talk about a mechanism once it’s understood what the intended function of the mechanism is,” he says. “If you can figure out what a biological system—like the visual system has been selected to do, you can start to work on how it does it.”

Changizi’s interest is in discovering why a particular mechanism gets selected to perform a task that a biological method could do. “My research focuses first on why a mechanism happens, and then on uncovering what makes that mechanism optimal.”

Just as optimization is inherent in the systems he studies, it’s also inherent in the process by which Changizi conducts his research, which differs in significant ways from the processes typically followed by many of his colleagues. “I’m cognizant that it’s not likely I will make multiple discoveries of the same magnitude in any given topical area, so in order to optimize my chances as a theorist, I have to constantly change the subject areas I focus on. And I take a specific approach to do that,” he says.

Changizi’s research questions are the product of more than a decade of frequent brainstorming sessions, during which he tries not to aim to solve a specific problem or confine his thinking to any particular discipline, because “the odds of getting a great idea in any given area are very low, so you need to allow your brainstorming travels to go anywhere.” He says he may develop anywhere from 10 to 100 ideas before finding a good one, which he defines as “coherent, interesting, true, testable, and publishable.”

Changizi’s intense research focus extends to disciplining his own mind by avoiding too close associations with specific scientific communities, funding agencies, and academic conferences. This, he believes, minimizes any psychological constraint that might keep him from following the most promising research directions.

“This can make you less likely to go outside your own community to take up other kinds of problems,” he says, “even great, interesting, exciting problems—for fear of being rejected by your peers.”

He also tries not to let research funding exert too much influence over his work. “Funded research is important, and I do some, but I don’t ever want the dollars to dictate what I’m studying. I don’t want to forget what I was excited about doing before I got the money,” he says.

In fact, Changizi’s role as an outsider allows him to pursue projects that might sound crazy to other researchers. “Some of my best ideas seemed embarrassingly crazy when I first conceived of them,” he says. “[But] they have fueled my most important discoveries.”

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2009 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.