Biomedical engineer with a keen interest in experimental psychology
Dr. Hironori Nakatani's research career began as a quest to estimate somatosensory information from sensory nervous activity, but his curiosity runs deeper. In fact, in his pursuit of the meaning of perception, he has run to the dynamics of visual perceptual process. Nakatani is also one of a handful of scientists at RIKEN Brain Science Institute working in a non-Japanese run laboratory. Today he took some time to share his experiences and his approach to research.
How does a bioengineer end up in an experimental psychology lab?
"As a student and research associate at Tohoku University, I spent seven years trying to extract sensory information from neural activity, that is useful to control artificial organs," remembers Nakatani. "Actually I was studying sensory neural activity, but I kept wondering how neural activity could generate a feeling."
Pressing a pen against the tip of his finger, he explains that an action potential is generated in the peripheral nerve, causing a perception that there is the pen on the tip of a finger. But, how does that perception arise from an action potential?
As he ponder this question, Nakatani read an interview between Dr. Ito and Japanese science writer Takashi Tachibana (BSI News, December 2000 No. 10) in which Ito describes BSI as haven for young researchers seeking independence and challenge. Intrigued, Nakatani sent an email to Dr. Cees van Leeuwen asking if there were any open positions. There weren't, but after they met, Dr. van Leeuwen still offered Nakatani a researching position. Only this time he would not be working on somatosensory system, instead he would be working in interdisciplinary, international laboratory learning about how to design experiments in psychology.
The head of the lab for Perceptual Dynamics is Dutch. He employs researchers and technical staff from around the globe, but a significant number of them are from Europe and Russia. Nakatani is one of three Japanese research staff in the lab, but he is also the only biomedical engineer in a lab dominated by theoreticians and experimentalists. In two ways, Nakatani become a doorway between different perspectives: between Japan and the small band of ex-pats, and between two scientific approaches to brain science. Was the adjustment difficult?
"Culturally, not really," Nakatani laughs. "The interdisciplinary nature of the lab was a far greater culture shock-after all I am still in Japan. What I needed to learn was how to integrate experiment and theory into my projects." Even so, the transition was relatively smooth once he started to learn the specialised vocabulary, a task made easier by the communicative nature of the lab members.
"The researchers here like to talk," he explains as he looks around the café On most days, you can find members of Nakatani's lab here, having discussions over strong cups of coffee. "In Japan, it is rare to have this type of communication. That may also be because Japanese researchers typically work on such narrow topics. In the Perceptual Dynamics lab, most of the researchers have broad views of issues that feed into our discussions."
Intuition, perception and shogi
His growing interest in perception now includes a desire to understand the mechanisms driving intuition, or knowledge-based perception. He believes that perception and intuition use the same processes. To show this, he will study how the mind works when masters and non-masters play shogi, a strategy-driven game that is similar to chess. When this two-year project is completed, Nakatani would like to go to Europe. Why? "Well American neuroscientists tend to approach questions in brain science using linear dynamics although neural dynamics is highly nonlinear, but I suspect that since my colleagues, who are predominantly European and such positive contributors in my development, have strongly influenced my career hopes." Perceptions, it seems, do indeed drive most of our decisions.