The Reinvention of the Self
A mind-altering idea reveals how life affects the brain.
• Posted February 23, 2006 12:37 AM
From the FEB/MAR 2006 issue of
Elizabeth Gould overturned one of the central tenets of neuroscience. Now she’s building
on her discovery to show that poverty and stress may not just be symptoms of society, but
bound to our anatomy.
Professor Elizabeth Gould
has a picture of a marmoset on her computer screen.
Marmosets are a new world monkey, and Gould has a large colony living just down the
hall. Although her primate population is barely three years old, Gould is clearly smitten,
showing off these photographs like a proud parent. Marmosets are the ideal experimental
animal: a primate brain trapped inside the body of a rat. They recognize themselves in the
mirror, form elaborate dominance hierarchies and raise their young cooperatively. If you
can look past their rodent-like stature and punkish pompadour, marmosets can seem
In her laboratory at
’s Department of Psychology, Gould is determined to create a marmoset
environment that takes full advantage of their innate intelligence. She doesn’t believe in metal cages. “We are housing
our marmosets in large, enriched enclosures,” she says, “and with a variety of objects to support foraging. These are
social animals, and it’s important to let them be social. Basically, we want to bring our experimental conditions closer to
But Gould is not a primatologist. She doesn’t give her marmosets adorable names, or spend time cuddling with their
young. In fact, these marmosets don’t even know she exists: Gould prefers to observe them remotely, on a little video
screen. Staring at the televised frenzy of this little marmoset world, it is poignant to know how their lives will end. Their
brains will be cut into thousands of transparent slices. Their dissected neurons will be stained neon green and the density
of their dendritic connections will be quantified under a powerful microscope. They will live on as data.
The naturalistic habitat that Gould has created for these marmosets is essential to her studies, which involve
understanding how the environment affects the brain. Eight years after Gould defied the entrenched dogma of her
science and proved that the primate brain is always creating new neurons, she has gone on to demonstrate an even more
startling fact: The structure of our brain, from the details of our dendrites to the density of our hippocampus, is incredibly
influenced by our surroundings. Put a primate under stressful conditions, and its brain begins to starve. It stops creating
new cells. The cells it already has retreat inwards. The mind is disfigured.
The social implications of this research are staggering. If boring environments, stressful noises, and the primate’s