The alpha and omega of Crick and consciousness

I just found a touching tribute to Francis Crick published in PLoS Biology in 2004 that also describes some little know aspects of his life during his study of consciousness.

One fascinating part of the article discusses his meeting with David Marr, a brilliant young neuroscientist who was fated both to revolutionise our understanding of the brain and die of leukaemia at the age of 35.

The two scientists worked together for only a month, but their meeting obviously last a lasting impression on them both, as they feature in each other’s work and particularly influenced Crick’s thinking on the conscious mind.

David Marr was a young mathematician and physiologist whose doctoral thesis on a theory of mammalian brain function at Cambridge had brought him into some contact with Brenner and Francis. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he began working with Tomasio Poggio of the Max Plank Institute in Tübingen on a computational theory of neuroscience. Following an invitation from Francis, Poggio and Marr spent the month of April, 1979 extending their intense examination of the core problems of visual perception.

They spent hours sitting at the most western end of the Salk Institute, at the cafeteria or in Francis’s office, gazing into the Pacific Ocean with all its daily changes, discussing not only architecture of visual cortex and visual perception, but the ramifications of a good theory of brain function. We know of these conversations, as the probing of Marr by Francis is captured in the final chapter of Marr’s now classic book ‚ÄúVision‚Äù (Marr 1982). (Although Marr speaks of a three-way conversation, judging from our own experiences as Francis’s younger colleagues, the interlocutor simply seems to be Francis.)

Marr had been diagnosed with acute leukemia in the winter of 1978 (Marr and Vaina 1991). The one-month visit to the Salk Institute was an intellectual gift, for eighteen months later, Marr died. Francis had simultaneously lost a young friend and colleague who had brought an “incisive mind and creative energy” (Crick 1994, p. 77) and his best new ideas of a theoretical neurology to the brain (Marr 1969, 1970). And he saw the tragedy of Marr being cut off from solving the big problems for which he was so clearly destined.

During those early years, Francis must have thought that consciousness was tractable‚Äîif only the right way of thinking was brought to bear on it. Francis’s brain was capable of collecting and filing away many disparate data, which he could then combine uniquely and imaginatively, leading to that ‚Äúdramatic moment of sudden enlightenment that floods the minds when the right idea clicks into place‚Äù (Crick 1990, p. 141). Whatever his initial thoughts about the nature of the problem, Francis soon came to realize that the problem of consciousness was even tougher than he imagined, that the ‚Äúclick‚Äù was not happening with consciousness. In 1988, he wrote, ‚ÄúI have yet to produce any theory that is both novel and also explains many disconnected facts in a convincing way‚Äù (Crick 1990, p. 162).

Ironically, for a man who wrote a book called Vision, there seems to be no pictures of David Marr on the internet.

Of course, there are many of Crick, and the PLoS Biology article is an excellent tribute to the multi-talented researcher.

Link to article ‘Francis Crick’s Legacy for Neuroscience’.

One Comment

  1. Posted August 26, 2008 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I don´t doubt that Marr and Crick interact and influence each other, but Crick was trying to find a Neural Correlate of Consciousness (NCC) and took vison as the royal road to consciosness (what neurual changes are present when someone sees something consciously in comparison with the neural changes that are present when somone sees something unconsciously)
    and Marr with his three level explanation of information-processing( computational: algorthmic use, representational: function execute, and implementational: physical substrate) suggest that each level are independent.
    In other words, while Crick was reductionist Marr was functionalist, so they were a little bit antagonist, don´t you think?


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