Notes From Abroad: Srini Narayanan

Letter from the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), Berlin

As a graduate student and then as a researcher at ICSI, I have had the pleasure of welcoming and working closely with many international researchers and have sometimes wondered what ICSI is like from the viewpoint of a visitor. Now I have a better perspective. For the first time in a decade, I have been away from Berkeley for over a month. As a resident fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, I am spending this semester in Berlin consolidating and writing up several years of work within the NTL project on neurally plausible computational models of cognitive phenomena.

I had not visited Berlin before, did not speak German except for a few rudimentary phrases, and was in all respects even less prepared for the transition than several of our visitors to ICSI. The administrative staff at the IAS managed to make the move completely smooth. They arranged for the residence permit (you need one for stays of over three months), a great apartment, office space, computers, supplies and even gave us invaluable tips on moving around, getting basic things done (like opening a bank account, groceries). All this could have been quite onerous, and the ease with which this happened made me appreciate the great service the corresponding ICSI staff provides to our numerous international vistors every year.

The Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Berlin (aka Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin or just Wiko) offers the selected researchers (around 40/year who stay anywhere between 6–10 months), the opportunity to concentrate on their research projects and to absorb ideas and inspiration from other disciplines. In selecting its members, the international advisory board of the IAS places no restrictions on country of origin, discipline, or academic position. The Fellows' only obligations are residence at the Wissenschaftskolleg and the requirement to meet once a day for a meal and each Tuesday for the weekly Colloquium. At each Colloquium, one Fellow presents his work to the others and all Fellows, regardless of their disciplinary background, consider and discuss the presented topic.

The intellectually heterogeneous atmosphere has been very instructive and has resulted in critical examination of past work as well as new problems to contemplate. In consolidating research within NTL, I have been reading a number of articles on the experimental techniques (such as fMRI imaging) used in our own work within NTL and in the wider context of cognitive neuroscience. This has resulted in an idea for a new experimental approach designed to move from the one–off studies that currently constitute the state of the field to a more predictive model that compares predicted fMRI results to actual images in test data. One derailment to my carefully laid plans involves fellow Fellow Robert Trivers, who has succeeded in getting me thinking about self deception and its connection to the evolution of deception, framing, and metaphor.

Berlin is an interesting and culturally rich city with great museums, nightlife, and real seasons (read: cold and grey winters). My experience and appreciation of western classical opera and musical concerts have benefited immensely even in the few months I have been here. As elsewhere in Europe, the ease with which one can use public transportation to explore this fairly large city and its surroundings is refreshing. The service economy, innovative green technologies, and the cosmopolitan nature of Berlin bears some similarities to the Bay area. Having said that, the difference in the quality of Indian food is substantial. So I have always found reasons to come back to Berkeley/ICSI every couple of months.

The pace here is much gentler than at ICSI, the conversations longer with emphasis placed on developing collaborations and entertaining perspectives on your work from scholars in diverse disciplines (history, biology, philosophy, law, art, music) who are often drinking wine during this interaction. Clearly, one can tap the unparalleled resources at ICSI and on campus to achieve this degree of interdisciplinarity (and wine drinking is at least as refined an art in the bay area). But it does feel nice to have the legwork done and all the participants assembled in advance. On the other hand, I do miss the students to interact with, the research group meetings, and just the intellectual stimulation of several faculty, researchers, and students working toward a common objective. It would be nice to create a mini IAS within ICSI where we could have semester long international collaborations focused on topics of fundamental interest. This way we can have the best of both worlds. And in addition, good weather and better Indian food.