Zombie brains! Timothy Verstynen joins Real Scientists!

IMG_2681We’re excited to start Brain Awareness Week with Timothy Verstynen (@tdverstynen), a dad, sci-fi geek, Pittsburgh Pirates fan, part-time political nerd, and full time goofball. Oh and also an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US. Timothy uses neuroimaging to study the architecture of the circuits in the brain that give rise to decision making and skill learning. Timothy also co-authored the book “Do zombies dream of undead sheep?“!

We asked him our usual set of questions, and you can read his responses below.

How did you end up in science? In high school I read M. Mitchell Waldrop’s book Complexity. It is about the start of the Santa Fe Institute. I was immediately hooked on the idea of emergent organization seemingly chaotic systems. It became a mental itch that I couldn’t help but keep scratching.

Why did you choose your current field? Dude I study the only organ that tries to understand itself. How cool is that? Every day I get to watch the mind at work and map its circuitry using tools that were considered purely science fiction when I was growing up.

Tell us more about that! I study the architecture of the circuits in the brain that give rise to decision making and skill learning. In my lab we use neuroimaging to map the physical connections between brain areas and monitor their activity as people perform various tasks. We also build computational models to understand how these circuits produce behaviors like choosing whether or not to swing at a baseball or learning to play the piano.

Why should the lay public care about your work? If you have a brain or interact with anything that does, then you should care about cognitive neuroscience.

Do you have any interesting hobbies? I watch WAY too many science fiction and horror movies. I’ve been told it’s an unhealthy amount. But I did at one point merge my passion for horror movies and neuroscience to co-author a book about the zombie brain. So I guess I can count this as a productive hobby right?

What does your favorite day off look like? Wake up after the sun rises. Make some cornmeal waffles. Go on a hike with my family. Try explaining classical mechanics to my infant daughter (hilarity ensues). Make some grilled pizzas for dinner. Catch a show my favorite local music venue. Come home and fall asleep watching The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension for the 1000-th time.


Please welcome Timothy to Real Scientists!

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