Now, all at the end, when you find

Now, human babies are a hard population to study at the best of times.Compared to human adults,they don’t follow instructions,Studying the brain adds extra challenges, and that’s because the best tool to study human brain function is an fMRI.An fMRI is a recording of brain function;it lets us watch blood flow through the brain,bringing the oxygen that it needs to work.fMRI is a neuroscientist’s dream come true. Just 20 years ago, before fMRI, looking inside someone’s brain was dangerous and rare.It happened during surgery,as a result of injury, or after death.And the picture that it gave us of human brain function was like a blurry snapshot.fMRI had just become available,and we felt like suddenlywe could make gorgeous,high-definition movies of anyone’s brain doing basically anything,like language and empathy and morality. First of all, the baby needs to be still. Even though we’re usinga cutting-edge machine,it can feel like we’re tryingto take a picture in the 19th century.If you move at all while we’re taking the picture,all we see is a blur.Second, the baby needs to be awake.The whole point of this experiment,is that we’re trying to studyhow the brain experiences the world,so we need to give the baby an experience of the world by showing them movies of the kinds of things they like to look at anywayin their everyday lives, like moving aroundin their neighbourhoods, or the smiling faces of their friends.And then third, if you’ve everbeen in an MRI machine,you know it can be loud and uncomfortable.because it encapsulateswhat it means to me to be a scientist.We have this cultural image of a scientist that we got in high school science class,mechanically applying somepre-determined ‘scientific method’ to a technical problem that seems pretty far removed from human experience.You’d think that the fun part was all at the end, when you find the answers,when you announce the discoveries.And discoveries are great,and the distant horizonis really important -the desire to understand and to help -but I am a scientist, not because of the answers,but because of the questions,because of the process.Researching is like having an expedition through the dense woods,and somewhere there’s a mountain with a view of the horizon,but right now all I can see is my feet. And with each tiny step,I’m thinking, ‘Is this a path?’I’m addicted to that process of science,which is creative and collaborative and passionate and personal and slow and hard and usually doesn’t work.And that’s because we’re trying to find those tiny, rare placesat the edge of our ignorance, where progress is just barely possible.And we’re still trying to figure out what questions to ask and how to ask them, let alone what the answers might mean.But this research programme is actually just beginning,and I’m even more excitedabout the questions we can ask now.Like how much of what we see in these pictures is universal, shared by all human babies,and how much is specific and unique to each individual child?How will learning and experience change those pictures?Is there something we could see in a picture like thisthat would be the earliest sign of a problem like autism or dyslexia or depression?Can we use this research to understand why human babies are so resilient to some kinds of trauma and so vulnerable to others?