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The Secret (Inner) Life of Crickets… and Andre

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Click here for Andre’s Profile.

Working hard at just about any pursuit—laboring and thinking deeply—can lead to new self-knowledge. But some people choose a

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particular pursuit because they believe that the very “stuff” of that pursuit—what they’re doing, what they’re learning about—will help them understand themselves in some new and meaningful way.

One of those people is Andre Fenton. Andre chose to be a neurobiologist primarily because he believed that this work would help him to better understand himself. And I know this because he told us so in the “Secret Life” studios.

In Andre’s “Detective of Biology” video, he talks about how the famous study, “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” sparked his interest in learning about the brain. Well, Andre followed that up with a project of his own that solidified his passion for studying the brain. And it happened to involve the “secret (inner) life” of crickets:

The Secret (Inner) Life of Crickets… and Andre-andre_meditating.jpg
If you want to know about yourself, pay attention.

“I did a thesis project, which was to record the electrical activity from a set of neurons in a cricket. And what was intriguing about that was that we could listen in, if you will, on the secret inner life of this cricket. And what was particular here is that the neurons were responsive to sounds that were meant to mimic bat calls. So when bats hunt crickets, or any other nocturnal flying insect, they emit ultrasonic sounds. And when those ultrasonic sounds reflect off the flying insect, the bat knows where they are and can eat the insects. So if you want to survive as a nocturnal flying insect, it’s best to listen for those bat calls.

“So what was really intriguing was that if you played a sound to the crickets that was in the range of what a bat call was, they would elicit a whole sequence of complex behaviors, like wiggling their abdomens and moving away from the source of the sound. If the crickets had been flying, the wiggling of their abdomens would cause them to fly erratically and in that way, to avoid the ‘bat.’ So here was this activity from a single neuron that was controlling all of this behavior in an insect. And it didn’t take too much imagination to imagine that I had neurons—not quite command neurons—but I had neurons that would respond to the world… and would trigger a whole complex series of behaviors that I hold dear to me. And so that’s why I started to become more interested in the electrophysiology that underlies the neurobiology of behavior and how brains work.”

Andre’s fascination with the brain was, of course, not mere infatuation. He’s made a life’s work of it. And while he obviously loves simply doing the research, it’s also clear that he loves that his work is in the service of trying to better understand his own secret (inner) life:

“I’m stuck trying to figure out how brains work, because it helps me make sense of the world. It helps me make sense of my relationships with other people. It helps me understand my own motivations. It helps me understand how I look at the world and why I look at the world in the ways that I do.”

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.