Thinking Outside the Brain
By Amanda S.F. Hartle
When Carnegie Mellon University alumnus and Director of Neuroscience Research at DeepMind Matthew Botvinick (DC 2001) walked into the first biology class of his life as a teenager, he was confident all the questions in his brain — about his brain — were about to be answered.
“When I got the textbook, the first thing I did was turn to the brain section. I thought finally I was going to learn something about the brain,” Matthew recalls. “Both because it was the 1980s and this was a junior high textbook, there wasn’t much in there. I thought there’s nothing here about the mind, attention, memory, personality or awareness.”
Unable to satisfy his interest about neural networks, he pivoted toward a career in medicine. During medical school at Cornell University, he told the physician advising his psychiatry rotation his conclusions learned in that first biology class.
In response, he handed Matthew a two-volume set of books — “Parallel Distributed Processing: Psychological and biological models” by then CMU University Professor Jay McClelland.
“I was blown away. I stayed up all night reading them,” Matthew remembers. “It was an exciting discovery that I could actually pursue those things that I’d been interested in my whole life and here were a set of researchers who were doing that in a scientifically meaningful way.”
That sleepless night put him on his path through a doctorate in psychology and cognitive neuroscience at CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences earned simultaneously with a medical residency in psychiatry, then professorships at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University and, eventually, to Google partner DeepMind in London.