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Why Study the Brain
Jun 1, 2007, 6:08p - Science

To apply to grad school, I had to write a personal statement that explained why I wanted to study neuroscience and why I would be successful at it. Here's the essay I wrote for my MIT application, way back in December '06.

Reading it again, it seems a bit corny. But I guess these things always do. Especially when you're trying to pack a whole lot of punch into a mere 1000 words...


Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote, "All confusion and dismay exist in the mind, not in reality." (1) This is a sobering thought and is especially worth remembering as we study the brain.

Of the countless unexplained phenomena in the universe, the brain captivates me. It is the most challenging and personal of puzzles which, if unraveled, could be one of the most important for humanity to resolve. My passion for understanding the brain is best revealed by the causes I work for, experiences I have had, and expectations I have for myself.

There are 2 great injustices in this world: those that inflict the body and those that infect the mind. I believe the best way to right the injustices of the mind is with a truer understanding of the brain. Such an understanding could improve quality of mind in ways not yet seen, through new pharmaceuticals, devices, and other therapies.

I enjoy using science and math to solve practical problems. Truth is hard to pin down and impossible to confirm, yet I believe that the moment we can claim to understand something is the moment that we can build predictable functionality aboard Truth's roof.

For the past 8 years I've focused my curiosity not on the brain but on mechanical, electrical, and software engineering. I've pursued this work with concentrated diligence because I wanted to be capable of building some of what my mind has imagined, from lighting that imitates the rhythmic glow of fireflies to video services for the Web. Now that I'm equipped with these skills, it's time for me to apply them to my primary interest - the functioning of the human brain.

My interest in the brain began in 11th grade, when my younger brother returned from Mexico and fell into a coma. The UCLA neurologists were stumped but labeled his malady as meningoencephalitis, and after 2 spinal taps, countless medications, and 5 days of coma, he woke up. Given the high mortality rate associated with brain infections, no one was able to convincingly explain how my brother had survived.

How can we know so little about the brain? I remember wondering. I voraciously read every brain-related article I could, from Los Angeles Times stories to issues of Scientific American, Science, and Nature. I volunteered at Santa Monica Hospital to get closer to doctors. When I got to Stanford, I was accepted into Russell Fernald's seminar "Understanding the Brain: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?" I got my brain scanned for an fMRI research project and I still have the pictures pinned to my wall. I took Robert Sapolsky's "Human Behavioral Biology" class and another class on biotechnology.

Although I lack experience in biological labs, my research experiences have prepared me for research as a neuroscience doctoral student. I worked in Matsushita Electric's Analytical Research Laboratory in Osaka, where I built 3-D models and conducted computer tests of micro electrical mechanical systems, specifically MEMS relays used in the cell phone industry. After graduating I was offered a job working as a research assistant in John Gabrieli's cognitive neuroscience lab at Stanford. After much consideration, I decided to work at Google instead because I wanted the opportunity to build services that would benefit millions of people. While at Google I gained further research experience, spending 9 months conducting and analyzing more than 30 experiments on our user interface. I also co-authored 2 published patent applications and 13 additional applications that have not yet been published. (2,3)

Of the current research in neuroscience, I am most inspired by work on brain-computer interfaces and the neural correlates of pain, perception, and consciousness. Our understanding of the brain should expand significantly as we build devices that both influence and are influenced by the brain. Specifically, it's my hope that one day I'll be involved in building a device I call the "Dream Machine."

I have extremely vivid dreams, and the Dream Machine grew out of my dissatisfaction with leaving dreams unfinished. The Dream Machine would record a person's brain state during the night and let them "resume" dreams by imprinting the previous brain state back into the brain. Research in this area would seek to resolve many issues: Is brain "reading" and "writing" even possible? With what precision? How long would such effects last? How is conscious and non-conscious experience affected? Recent work by Krishna Shenoy's lab show the promise of brain implants, and Whitman Richards' and Sebastian Seung's research will prove fundamental as we continue building devices that both emulate and interact with the brain.

Further, I recently read Christof Koch's book Quest for Consciousness. I have been fascinated by the progress his lab is making in understanding the pathways of the visual cortex that contribute to conscious perception. I have also read papers by Michael Gazzaniga and others that discuss the implications of consciousness in callosum-sectioned patients. These experiments, especially those with Ledoux's patient P.S., show that a unified sense of self is likely an illusion and that we may all possess multiple independent consciousnesses ostensibly unified by the corpus callosum. (4) Research on brain disease by MIT's Richard Wurtman and Robert Desimone will also inform our understanding of consciousness. I'm excited to learn about and contribute to these burgeoning fields within neuroscience.

I want my life to matter. I want to leave this planet having done something that would not have been done if I had not lived. I have spent the past 4 years building applications based on existing technologies. I would like to spend the next 5 doing fundamental research that will enable new generations of applications. I have the privileged opportunity to apply to graduate school, and I want to use that opportunity to pursue more important goals than Wealth and Status, goals such as Truth and Justice. This is the depth of my passion for understanding the brain and pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

(1) E Yudkowsky. A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation. 2005.
(2) S Lawrence, O Khan, N Bhatla. Methods and Systems for Improving a Search Ranking Using Article Information (PDF). US Patent Application 2005/0149498, 2005.
(3) D Marmaros, N Bhatla, S Lawrence. Systems and Methods for Unification of Search Results (PDF). US Patent Application 2005/0149500, 2005.
(4) JE Ledoux, DH Wilson, MS Gazzaniga. A Divided Mind (PDF). Annals of Neurology, 1977.

Read comments (11) - Comment

Anonymous - Jun 8, 2007, 4:59p

Anonymous - Jun 12, 2007, 10:59p
like the previous comment said really wow!

Anonymous - Dec 15, 2007, 6:57a
I can't tell you how much of an impact the last para (especially the second sentence) had on me.

Gokul Rajan - Nov 13, 2010, 9:05p
Ahh.. its really great to hear that someone can have interest in neurobiology from 11th grade!! When i was in school and used to say that i'm interested in neuroscience, people gave me a very strange look!!!! lol :D But I still took up life sciences...
Then why did you go for engineering??

nikhil - Nov 15, 2010, 12:33a
i guess i had more passion and energy to learn how to build the things my mind kept imagining, dissatisfied with just letting them stall as ideas. funny thing is, even as i do science now, i'm constantly making minor improvements and writing new software to make the experiments easier, more reliable, and more efficient. so the engineering skills have really come in handy for doing science.

Gokul Rajan - Nov 15, 2010, 7:05a
yeah.. indeed neuroscience is a lot dependent on technology! we need more advanced and innovative technology to solve the mysteries of the brain!!

Chigozie Hilary - Aug 28, 2014, 12:36p
I must say, Nikhil, a big thank you because your story has really spurred my passion a great deal to continue in my pursuit of neuroscience study, to serve mankind... for I will write my name on the annals of history. Thank you.

Pankajam - Sep 29, 2016, 10:20a
Very Inspiring!! Glad to be pursuing neuroscience and more glad to see that it means so much to others too!!

Mud - Feb 5, 2017, 9:51a
So, is there an update on you now? What more have you created in the last 7 years? I could feel your passion through your words.
Loved it!

Mud - Feb 5, 2017, 9:53a
I just realized your last response was from 7 years ago. Your submission was actually from 10 years ago. Wow. Give us an update!

nikhil - Feb 14, 2017, 11:21a
Hi Mud,

So, here's the brief update of the last nearly 10 years.

(1) I spent several years at MIT in grad school trying to assess consciousness in the nematode C. elegans using a task that correlates with conscious awareness in humans, called trace conditioning (think Pavlov's dog). You can read more about this in my thesis (, see chapters 2 and 3). Unfortunately, I was never able to get the worms to learn to do this task, so instead settled on studying how the worms sense light, despite the fact that they don't have eyes. I discovered that they actually "taste" light by sensing the hydrogen peroxide that light generates within them.

(2) Now, I am doing a postdoc at UCSF, still focused on trying to study the neural circuits of consciousness. This time, I am trying to study blindsight ( using mice. No one has ever demonstrated blindsight in a mouse (though they have in monkeys), and if I can demonstrate it I may be able to track down neural circuits in the brain that specifically create the conscious experience of vision.

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