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Photo of Gerry EdelmanAlan Alda talks with Gerry Edelman, Director of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego and featured in the segment Monastery of the Mind.
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The Monastery

Alan Alda: This is a really unusual place. And it's in support of an unusual idea, isn't it?

Gerry Edelman: Well, yeah, it sort of encapsulates or represents an idea that I had, but it's not an original idea. It's an idea that I think you can see in the early institutes in the first part of this century. For instance, Neils Bohr's Copenhagen Institute for Physics. Namely a small place which attracts people who are very interested in solving deep problems, of science, of course, in this particular case. And so the way the institute is organized is very simply put. First of all, it's small. Second of all, it emphasizes young people because there is a kind of vigor required to get into that kind of thing. But then, third of all, make sure the young people have some old people to talk to because old people are wonderful to tell you what not to do. They're no good for telling you what to do.

Alan Alda: I've noticed that, too.

"Theory is as important as experiment. This is a very strong place for theory."

Gerry Edelman: I notice it with my kids, too. You're not going to listen to them when they tell you what to do, but if they tell you a war story or two, maybe you'll be cautious. So, we arranged that by having a visiting fellows program from all over the world. The final concept is very important. It is that theory is as important as experiment. Now that's a very unusual idea in biology. While Darwin's theory is the greatest theory of biology, most of the time you don't pay too much attention to it in the everyday work. You pay attention to genetics and chemistry. But, in figuring out how the brain works, the idea that you'd do it theoretically, or that it'll just all flop together when you get some facts, this sort of attitude is unconscionable. So, theory is very important here and this is a very strong place for theory. For that, you need a computer. The computer is not, in our opinion, a good model of the mind, but it is as the trumpet is to the orchestra- you really need it. And so, we have very massive simulations in computers because the problem is of course very complex.

Alan asks how science is like a good story  

Alan Alda: The institute may be small, but there's a wonderful sense of space here. And it's a beautiful space. It must be stimulating to everybody.

Gerry Edelman: Yes, to my mind it is. I think it makes people feel a sense of identity, a sense of unity and of aesthetic reach, which happens to be something very important. It perhaps isn't absolutely essential, but it sure does help.

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