Columbia University in the City of New York

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Brain Insight Lectures

Richard Axel, MD, Nobel laureate and Zuckerman Institute codirector, presents his research at a recent Brain Insight Lecture (Credit: Barbara Alper/Columbia University)

Bringing brain science to the public

At the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Brain Insight Lectures, free and open to the public, eminent Columbia scholars examine how brain science intersects with everyday life. Speakers have included Olajide Williams, MD, who spoke about how to prevent stroke in communities of color; Frances Champagne, PhD, who discussed how our early experiences shape our behavior; and Richard Axel, MD, who shared his acclaimed research and insights into how the brain knows what the nose is smelling.

We invite you to view previous lectures below.

This program is made possible with generous support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.


Nurturing Growth in a Dynamic World

The first few years of our lives are a fascinating and crucial time, filled with impressive cognitive and social development. We start to figure out not only who we are but also the relationships we have with the people closest to us. As we progress through infancy and childhood, how do the connections we form with caregivers nurture us as we navigate an increasingly complex and ever-changing environment? In this event, three experts studying early life development will bring together perspectives from psychology, neuroscience, and pediatrics to discuss how children grow up in a dynamic world. Featuring Dani Dumitriu, MD, PhD; Dima Amso, PhD; moderated by Katie Insel, PhD.

From Mind to Motion: How the Brain Directs Behaviors

Though it might feel automatic to suddenly reach and grab for a falling cup, a lot has to line up for this action to take place--even if you don’t manage to catch the cup in time. What does it take to choreograph the cells across the brain in just the right way to do what we need to do? In this event, three experts studying the neuroscience of movement will discuss how neurons work together to generate a wealth of behaviors, from a simple reflex to complex learned skills. Featuring Gwyneth Card, PhD; Mark Churchland, PhD; moderated by Sumaira Zamurrad, PhD.

Can Machines Learn Like Humans?

Artificial intelligence has pervaded our lives, from computer vision to ChatGPT, but how effectively can machines emulate human thought? Some machines have gotten impressively good at predicting outcomes, yet the ability to truly reason and ask “what if” remains elusive. In this pair of talks and moderated discussion, three experts spanning the fields of cognitive science and machine learning come together to discuss the next frontier at the intersection of natural and artificial intelligence. Featuring Zenna Tavares, PhD; Kimberly Stachenfeld, PhD; moderated by Emily Mackevicius, PhD,

Embracing Uncertainty: The Power of Curiosity and Exploration in Learning

Today’s world is filled with immediate information. While it is a welcome haven from the discomfort of uncertainty, that discomfort might hinder the process of deep thought. Why is the feeling of uncertainty so aversive? Could it somehow be harnessed into a source of motivation to improve how we learn and think critically? In this pair of talks, two experts in distinct but related fields will combine approaches from psychology and neuroscience to discuss the importance of letting the mind take risks, make mistakes and wonder. Featuring Lisa Son, PhD, Jacqueline Gottlieb, PhD, moderated by Jennifer Bussell, PhD.

A Clear Vision: How Animals and Robots See the Physical World

Sensing the world around us might feel effortless, but how does the brain succeed in the complex task of interpreting what we see? Could understanding the neuroscience of vision be the key for creating robots that perceive, interact with, and learn from their surroundings as well as we can -- or even better? In this pair of talks by two experts in distinct but related fields, our speakers will explore vision, from biology to technology, and discuss how the domains of science and engineering can inspire each other in tackling these fascinating questions. Featuring Rudy Behnia, PhD, Shuran Song, PhD, moderated by Vassiki Chauhan, PhD.

Nature and Nurture: How Our Experiences Shape the Brain Across Generations

How are we shaped by the environment around us? In what way does “nature” vs “nurture” impact the brain over a lifetime -- or even across future generations? In this pair of talks by two experts in distinct but related fields, our speakers will explore epigenetics, this fascinating interplay of genes and the environment, through development, learning, and addiction. Featuring Bianca Jones Marlin, PhD, Yasmin Hurd, PhD, moderated by Paige Greenwood, PhD.

Does Practice Make Perfect? How the Brain Learns Language in a Social World

Vikram Gadagkar, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, opens the event by revealing what songbirds teach us about the brain’s remarkable ability to fine tune the vocal learning process. Karen Froud, PhD, Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Education and Director of the Graduate Program in Neuroscience and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, talks about how the human brain represents, processes, and produces speech, especially in the context of developmental and acquired language disorders. Raphaël Millière, PhD, the 2020 Robert A. Burt Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University, then moderates a discussion and Q&A with the speakers.

Gentle Touch: How the Brain Perceives Touch and What It Can Teach Us About Autism

In this event, two experts from different but related fields will talk us through how the brain processes touch sensation and how that can help us understand how autistic people experience touch. Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, will talk about his research around understanding how we perceive our environment through touch, the brain pathways involved and how genetics may play a role. Kirsten Lindsmith, artist, writer and autism advocate, will then speak about how autistic individuals experience touch differently, the role of touch in autism therapy and how we can apply what we learn from autistic people to the lives of people without autism.

Art in the Brain of the Beholder

In this event we hear two talks from experts who work at the interface of science and art: Nikolaus Kriegeskorte, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and Director of Cognitive Imaging at the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia University, and Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, multidisciplinary artist, educator and activist. Following the talks, Katy Gero, a PhD student in Computer Science at Columbia University, researcher, poet and essayist who studies and designs interactive AI tools with a focus on creative writing, moderates a conversation with the speakers.

The Science and Real World Impact of Brain-Machine Interfaces

In this talk, speakers Dr. Nima Mesgarani, Associate Professor at Columbia's Zuckerman Institute and Nathan Copeland, pioneering research study participant. Following the talks, Dr. Karen Schroeder, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the Zuckerman Institute moderates a conversation with the speakers in which they answer audience questions.

How our Brains Decide, Create and Innovate

Speakers Dr. Michael Shadlen, Professor of Neuroscience at Columbia's Zuckerman Institute and Dr. Sheena S. Iyengar, Inaugural S. T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia Business School discuss the way human brains make decisions and choices. Dr. Anne Loeffler, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the Zuckerman Institute moderates the discussions.

Changing Behavior to Fight Racism and Bias

Speakers Dr. Dana E. Crawford, clinical psychologist and Scholar-in-Residence at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute and Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn, Associate Professor of Social Work at Columbia University, speaks about racial tensions and persistent inequalities in our society. The discussion is moderated by Dr. Ariel J. Mosley, Postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University in the Columbia Social and Moral Cognition Lab.

The Future of Learning and Education

Speakers Jacqueline Simmons, EdD, Senior Lecturer and Vice Chair, Department of Curriculum & Teaching at Teachers College, and Lila Davachi, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Columbia University serve as experts from Columbia University and discuss their work covering different aspects of learning and education

Making the Right Moves in a Pandemic

Speakers Dara Kass, MD, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Andrés Bendesky, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute discuss our response to the COVID-19 pandemic in very different ways.

Stress, Sleep and Resilience

Speakers Carmela Alcántara, PhD, Associate Professor of Social Work and Maura Boldrini, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry serve as two experts from Columbia University who study different aspects of stress, how they affect our lives and change our brains, and the potential mechanisms of recovery.

Singing in the Brain

The young brain learning to communicate with hearing and voice builds auditory and vocal motor circuits that are functionally coupled to perceive and produce particular sounds. Sarah Woolley has helped decode how the brain interprets vocalizations — and what happens during development when those sounds are disrupted. Her research could shed important light on developmental disorders associated with speech and communication. In this conversation, Dr. Woolley will discuss progress using songbirds to understand how early social experience tunes the auditory system for vocal communication.

What's a Brain For: A Moving Story

Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert, PhD, is fascinated by how the brain controls our every movement. Join Dr. Wolpert as he discusses what makes control so hard, especially in the face of incomplete or rapidly changing information about the world.

Performing Our Best When the Pressure is On

Barnard President Sian Beilock, PhD, will discuss how current research in psychology and neuroscience can be used by parents, teachers and students themselves to enhance learning and performance in school — especially for students who are chronically anxious about taking tests.

Data for Good

Data Science at Columbia with Jeannette Wing, PhD

Finding the Bar Codes in our Brains

Using genetics to identify the brain’s 100 billion neurons with Tom Maniatis, PhD

How the Brain Thinks, Decides and Creates

In this lecture, Michael Shadlen, MD, PhD, discusses exciting new insights into how the brain makes decisions — from the simple to the complex — that lay the foundation for its most amazing abilities.

Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease Through Its Anatomical Vulnerability

Featuring Scott Small, MD

Getting a Head Start

The developing brain and the importance of early experiences with Nim Tottenham, PhD

Finding the Right Medicine One Patient at a Time

Columbia University’s David Goldstein, PhD, a pioneer in genetics and precision medicine, discussed developing targeted treatments that have fundamentally improved the lives of patients living with devastating brain diseases.

Stuck in a Rut

The Neurobiology Behind Anorexia Nervosa’s Stubborn Grip with Joanna Steinglass, MD.

Hope in the Face of Fear

How advances in neuroscience will transform treatments for anxiety and OCD with Helen Blair Simpson, MD, PhD.

Learning from Experience

How our brains remember the past and shape our future with Daphna Shohamy, PhD.

Writing a New Story Together

Confronting mental health disparities with community partnerships with Sidney Hankerson, MD.

Scents and Sensibility

Representations of the olfactory world in the brain with Richard Axel, MD.

Race Matters, but Not How You Think

How stereotypes affect how we live, work, play, and pray

Heading Off Damage

New insights into traumatic brain injury with Barclay Morrison, PhD

We are What we Remember

A talk with Dr. Eric Kandel, MD


Our Sponsor: The Stavros Niarchos Foundation

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