Today, during the last 15 minutes of the last lecture in NEU 200: Functional Neuroanatomy, psychology professor Michael Graziano ’89 introduced a special guest lecturer — Kevin, his orangutan puppet.
“I was ready to take notes,“ said Hadar Halivni ’22, a student in the class.
“Then he pulls out this monkey puppet and starts doing ventriloquism, and he was really good at it too,” Halivni continued.
From exploring mysterious brain regions using “quick and dirty” models to studying “bubble wrap” neurons through a ventriloquist's dummy, Graziano fully embraces subjects he loves — no matter how disparate. While others build a “brand name” with the work they are known for and stick to it, Graziano said he prefers to “move around” and seek novel paths of inquiry.
At the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, Graziano is known for his research on consciousness. But he’s also known for penning novels and children’s books, composing quartets and symphonies, and picking up ventriloquism with his orangutan puppet Kevin.
“It gets really boring after a while,” Graziano said. “I run out of interesting, new, creative ideas and want to do something else.”
Studying the brain has been more or less constant for Graziano, however. In kindergarten, when his teacher asked each member of his class what they wanted to be when they grew up, Graziano said “a neurobiologist.”
As an undergraduate at the University, Graziano fostered a passion for neuroscience, but also for physics, creative writing, and music. When it came time to decide what to do professionally, Graziano reasoned that he couldn’t be a composer and do neuroscience in the garage. So he did the opposite.
After graduating in 1989, he moved to Cambridge to pursue a graduate degree in brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. While there, he commuted every weekend back to the University to continue his research on campus. Graziano described waking up at 3 a.m. to take the train to Princeton, which he said was an “arduous” experience.
Eventually, Graziano left MIT to continue graduate studies full time at the University in the Department of Psychology. His research probed a mysterious brain region whose function was unknown to scientists at the time.
Graziano’s work revealed that the region was responsible for the experience of “peripersonal space,” or the space around you.
Sometimes called a “personal bubble,” this space affects how we move, how we perceive objects, and how we interact with other people. Stimulation in certain regions of this space trigger responses in the brain.
The dominant theory of the motor cortex at the time was a “roster of muscles,” or the notion that each section of the brain controlled the motion of a specific part of the body.
Graziano’s new findings replaced the “roster of muscles” with a roster of “meaningful movements.” Instead of controlling specific parts of the body, groups of neurons instead controlled complex sequences of action — for example, stimulating one spot triggered a bending of the arm, a movement of the hand to face, and an opening of the mouth. “Bubble wrap” neurons, as Graziano called them, were one type responsible for encoding defensive behaviors.
“We began to see what was going on in much more vivid color than we had before,” Graziano said. “You could trigger very specific, complex behaviors out of the motor cortex.”
At this point, Graziano had investigated how the brain monitors the space around the body and how the brain monitors the body. Then, he turned to how the brain monitors itself — that is, how consciousness and awareness are formed.
“You could say it’s the final step,” Graziano said. “How does the brain represent itself? How does it represent what is going on in its own internal processes?”
The brain basis of consciousness has been the focus of Graziano’s research since 2010. His work stems from the idea that the brain attributes subjective awareness to other people. In other words, we perceive other people to be conscious agents distinct from inert objects or machines. According to Graziano, this allows us to create intuitive models of others and predict their behavior.
Graziano often uses the analogy of his puppet Kevin to explain this concept in lectures and talks. Puppets like Kevin seem to be conscious, Graziano said. This is because we are generating a model of a mind and projecting that model on to Kevin. According to Graziano, projecting the same model onto ourselves and others is what constitutes the brain basis of consciousness.
“We treat each other like ventriloquist puppets, in the sense that what we see is just an object with a flappy mouth and sounds coming out,” Graziano said. “Our brains, our social machinery, is building this elaborate model of consciousness and attributing it to that object.”
Graziano has written several books on his research for popular audiences, including “The Space Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature,” published last December.
He has also written multiple children’s books, as well as works of fiction for adult readers. His children’s books, which include “The Last Notebook of Leonardo,” which won the Moonbeam Prize for Pre-Teen Fiction in 2011, are authored under the pseudonym B.B. Wurge — a super-intelligent orangutan who lives in an elevator in New York City.
Both his works for children and adults have been described as surreal and bizarre, a trend which started with the first story he wrote in the sixth grade. The plot, Graziano said, centered around an ancient Roman village, which was destroyed in an explosion triggered by marijuana brownies.
“It’s deliciously absurd,” Graziano said of his fiction.
Graziano also composes music, performances of which he posts on his YouTube channel. Although Graziano has been playing piano since the age of three, he always preferred composing to performing. He studied music composition and orchestration, and even considered becoming a music major in college. While a student at the University he described himself as constantly “haunting” the practice rooms of Woolworth Center of Musical Studies, hammering away at the dilapidated Steinway pianos.
When Graziano’s son was three years old, he began to pick up ventriloquism to entertain him. Graziano got hours of practice while playing with his son, who loved the act.
His interest in ventriloquism led him to Kevin, who initially accompanied him on book tours and readings, acting as B.B. Wurge’s “nephew.”
Later on, however, Kevin took on a life of his own. Working with Kevin sparked his interest in consciousness and led him to his subsequent research on models of awareness.
This kind of movement of ideas from one field to another is what motivates Graziano’s work.
“If you work on multiple interests, they don’t take away from each other. In some ways, they synergize and you gain a lot from working on different kinds of projects,” Graziano said.
Graziano says he is simply pursuing what he loves to do.
“Follow your interests. That’s what I do,” Graziano said. “I do neuroscience because it’s incredibly interesting. Which is the same reason I do anything else.”