Joseph Devlin

Favourite Thing: Not having been evicted yet!

Me and my work

I’m a neuroscientist with an interest in language and my work aims to answer the question: What is special about human brains that allows us to use language when no other species can?

I’m kind of a cross-over scientist because I started out in computer science doing artificial intelligence before gradually moving into real intelligence.  I’m particularly fascinated by language but unlike most areas of neurosciences which can be studied in animals, language is unique to humans:  



Sure they’re smart and they can definitely communicate, but they’re lousy conversationalists.





Because we can’t use animals, we do all our testing with human volunteers who are understandably touchy about being asked to open up their brains and poke electrodes in so we can study them.  So instead we use a combination of non-invasive methods for studying the brain in action including:



Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).  We use MRIs to scan the brains of normal healthy volunteers doing various language tasks like reading or listening to words or sentences.  This allows us to determine what parts of the brain are involved with language.  






myimage4 We also use transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for stimulating parts of the brain without opening up the skull and it allows us to test how specific brain regions contribute to language.  There was a nice article in the Times recently on this and we have a couple of videos showing TMS in action.  The first shows how TMS can be used to interfere with the ability to produce speech and the other shows how precisely the brain is organised by using TMS to selectively interfere with controlling only the  right hand.


The media like to make TMS sound kind of scary but in truth, it is not.  In our experiments, we use TMS to make participants respond either slightly faster or slightly slower (like 20-50 milliseconds or so) which is easy to measure using a computer but too small a change for participants to notice.  But this kind of experiment makes for boring TV so we tend to do more exciting things when filming.


By combining MRI and TMS with behavioural experiments, we explore which brain regions are involved in language, how they are linked together, and how these systems process the information they need in order to support language.  The remarkably cool part is that there are no regions of the brain that are dedicated to language — instead, all the parts that contribute to language also contribute to a range of other abilities like vision, hearing, memory, etc.  For instance, the picture below shows areas of the brain involved with various components of language:  


As you can see, language engages most of the brain!  Areas in green are involved in controlling muscles which is important for your ability to speak or to sign (i.e. use sign language).  White areas are necessary for processing information from your senses, like vision or hearing, which are critical for reading and listening, respectively.  And then the rest of the colours show areas important for understanding the sounds of words (blue), the meaning of words (red), the visual form of words (i.e. what words look like — yellow), and for coordinating these different processes (purple). All of these regions are important for non-language skills as well — in fact, although it is a controversial claim, I’d say that no aspect of the human brain is specific to language.  

My Typical Day

A good day at work involves spending some time in the lab collecting data with my graduate students, some time writing and as little time as possible spent in meetings!

The most fun at work is collecting and analysing data because that’s when we’re actively trying to answer new questions.  I have two excellent PhD students, Keith and Tae, and the three of us are working on several projects that are closely linked.  As a result, we do a lot of the work together, which is definitely the highlight of my work day.  On any given day, we can be found either i) collecting brain scans using an MRI scanner, ii) in the lab where we use transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to study how specific parts of the brain contribute to language, or iii) sitting in front of computers trying to make sense of our data.


myimage6  myimage7


Keith and Tae, my two PhD students


On most days, I would have one or more meetings related to administrative things like admissions, faculty meetings, etc. but I try to avoid these whenever possible.  


Finally, another important part of my day is working on papers that we are writing.  In reality, though, I rarely have time to do this during the normal work day so writing gets done in the evenings and on weekends.  I try not to let that interfere with my family life too much, though.


What I'd do with the money

If I won the money, I’d use it to help cover the cost of presenting our work at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting.

The Society for Neuroscience meeting is the biggest scientific conference for neuroscientists in the world — something like 30,000 of us come together to present our latest work, discuss issues in the field, introduce our students and postdocs to members of other groups, etc.  It is a great venue for learning about new discoveries and for interacting with people in all areas of neuroscience.  It is a pretty intense 5 days, particularly with San Diego jet lag.


Keith, Tae and I will all go.  For Keith and Tae, it’ll be their first time at SfN and a great opportunity to meet new people, get tons of feedback on the work they’re doing, learn about others doing related work, and do some networking.  In some ways, the networking is the most important part.  You not only talk with graduate students from other labs but also with other full time scientists.  It’s a tremendous learning environment.  For Keith and Tae, this is an opportunity to speak with others who are looking to hire postdoctoral fellows and maybe line up their next jobs. For me, I get to meet new up-and-coming PhD students and possibly find people interested in joining our lab.


My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Tall. Dark. Geeky.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I’m into The Libertines at the moment but Barenaked Ladies are always a favorite.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I spent a summer doing field research with dolphins that was fantastic. It had nothing to do with my science – it was just an opportunity to get involved with field work with a resident pod off the coast of North Carolina.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

1. To be able to play guitar like Mark Knofler. 2. To be around when first contact is made. 3. To be fit.

What did you want to be after you left school?

A lawyer — I still can’t believe it

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Those are just rumours… Nothing was ever proven; I wasn’t even there at the time — it was Steve.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

For the last few years I’ve been developing a set of tools for tracing the connections between brain regions non-invasively in humans in order to test the hypothesis that what makes humans unique isn’t new or different brain regions, but instead it is the unique way the existing brain regions are wired up.

Tell us a joke.

I’m crap at jokes. In fact, that’s my fourth wish: the ability to remember and tell jokes with my mates down the pub.