LOS ANGELES--Prominent on Christof Koch's desk is a white ceramic phrenology bust, its skull divided by glazed black lines into arbitrary regions. The maverick neuroscientist assures me that I need not worry about any caliper exam; he is as bemused as the rest of us by Lorenzo Fowler's 19th-century phrenological propaganda that cortical areas correspond to such personal attributes as "love of country" and "secretiveness." But Koch appreciates the early brain map as a reminder that he's looking for "a discrete set of neurons that might be in 20 different areas but share some set of properties that are responsible for generating consciousness."
Koch, 44, directs the computation and neural systems program at Caltech. He arrived here in 1986, a time when consciousness research was still considered career suicide even for established brain researchers. But high-profile attention to the subject by Nobelists Gerald M. Edelman and Francis Crick, coupled with advances in functional brain imaging, has elevated the field--and its investigators--to respectability.
This article was originally published with the title A Mind for Consciousness.