During my second year of college at East Carolina University, after un-deciding to be a physician and feeling lost in my career choice, I fell deeply in love. His name was Brain (not Brian). Brain was intellectually seductive, mysterious, and best of all, single. I was swept off my feet and instantly knew that I would spend the rest of my life in his curious orbit.
After finishing a double major in Brain and his softer sister, Psychology, I embarked on a journey towards a master’s degree at University of Hartford. There, I learned Brain’s birth story, marveled at its development, and conducted enough experiments to understand I actually don’t know Brain at all. Sure, animal Brain can explain basic physiological and psychological functions, but unfortunately animal Brain can’t answer my most burning questions: How does Brain create language, what is a memory, why do we fall in love? For that, I needed human Brain. I spent several years learning about human Brain at Yale University and University of Maryland Baltimore, captivated by the different methodological techniques available to unravel his secrets. I fell even deeper in love and made it official in 2015, when I entered a PhD program at University of Louisville and gave human Brain my full commitment.
During my graduate sojourn, I bravely asked human Brain to expose one of his deepest secrets, emotional intelligence - an oft-nebulous concept he and his sister Psychology ceaselessly argue about. Using fMRI, human Brain carefully showed me how he creates emotional intelligence by elegantly combining emotional regulation and empathy, processes that occupy overlapping spaces in his territory. By the end of my PhD, human Brain had explained his birth, development, and various networks that dynamically couple and uncouple to create his myriad cognitive and emotional functions. Yet I wondered, how will Brain change as he gets older?
As an Arizona Sursum Fellow in the Department of Psychology, my postdoctoral work is focused on Brain’s aging processes. For example, Brain’s memory and attention aren’t what they used to be, but he is more optimistic than his younger self and as loquacious as ever. In fact, Brain’s language and emotional abilities have improved greatly as he’s aged. So, I asked Brain why. Using emotional precision of word use as a marker, I am exploring how Brain’s ability to express himself compares to both younger Brains and Brains that are at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Brain has been my constant inspiration for over a decade. I have publicly written about him in Scientific American, HuffPost Science, Aeon/Psyche and Medium, and to encourage others to find their own love story, established a highly successful science internship program for high-school students: Louisville Science Pathways. As a postdoc, I co-founded Mentally Minded, an evidence-based Q&A website that serves as an empowering knowledge base for mental health information. Even after all these years, I am still in awe that I get to study Brain, or as Anthony Doerr poetically describes him, “one wet kilogram within which spin universes.”
If you would like to chat about Brain with me, please visit my website www.curiouscortex.com, or come join me for our monthly informal gathering, MetaMind.
Dr. Teodora Stoica was awarded a Postdoctoral Research Development Grant (PRDG) from the University of Arizona for a project titled “Neuroimaging Skills Training during the Organization for Human Brain Mapping Meeting in Scotland, UK”.
Each month we'll feature a Postdoctoral Scholar and their research, sharing their experiences from the UA, life in Arizona and their research interests.