Interview with 2014 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine John O’Keefe, 6 December 2014, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.
Could you explain your awarded work in easy-to-understand terms.
One of the fundamental things that humans and animals do, is find their way around the world. So, to do that they need to know where they are, and they need to know where other things are, and they need to know the relationship between these places. And the way the brain does that, is it represents the place where you are now, and it represents distances and directions. Over the years what we have been able to establish is, which parts of the brain do this, particularly a part of the brain called the hippocampus and its related areas, especially one of them, the entorhinal cortex and what types of cells that are there which represent these different kinds of spatial information. And we know that there are cells representing places so when you are in a familiar environment, different cells represent different locations in the environment. We know there are cells which represent directions so that when you are looking in a particular direction or moving in a particular direction, there are cells which tell the rest of the brain that. And then we also know there are cells which appear to tell the distances that are moved in particular directions. And if you put all these together what that provides you with is something we call a cognitive map which is a framework for identifying where you are, where other things are in the environment and how to get from one place to another.
At what point did you realize your work was a breakthrough?
When I first discovered the place cells, which is what I received the prize for, I very quickly realised that if my interpretation of these cells was correct and of course, one never knows, one has to do further experiments, control experiments and I’ve had several instances in my career where I thought I had really made a wonderful discovery which turned out just to be something much much more simple when you looked into it carefully. But when I saw the place cells and realised that they might be representing the abstract concept of a place and not a much more concrete things such as where a particular object is or visual stimulus. Then I realised this probably would have very important implications because there were much work in the past, much interest in space and how it is represented by psychologists and philosophers, mathematicians. So, I realised if we had actually found the system in the brain which was the basis for representing space in the brain that this would potentially be very, very important.
What brought you to science?
To be honest, I had a very variegated early carrier. I worked in various jobs, and at one point I was an engineer working making airplanes. And while I was studying engineering, I became interested in philosophy. And particularly in those areas of philosophy which were dealing with the mind-body problem, how things were represented in the mind and things like that. And I began to think that it was just possible that if we understood more about the brain, we will be able to understand some of the problems which people have been dealing with for centuries and millennia. So, I set out on a course where I decided it would be great to study the brain. In those days there wasn’t anything called neuroscience, there were several people studying the brain, but it wasn’t a very developed subject. So, I went back to university full time and ended up doing psychology because that was one of the few areas where you could study the brain. So, I came to the field of studying the brain, neuroscience, really through my interest in philosophy and trying to answer some of the fundamental questions. I think I have been very lucky that it turns out that I have made a contribution towards one of those questions and I am very fortunate to have done so.
What were you doing when you heard you had been awarded the Nobel Prize?
I actually spend, quite often I spend, mornings at home and I try to do a lot of the paperwork and quite a bit of my writing at home, so I was at home. So, the call was taken at my workplace by one of my colleagues, and she called me, and she said: “Are you standing up or sitting down?” because I think she knew what the implications were and then she said: “ I have a call here from a gentleman, he’s Swedish, he is from Stockholm and he says it is rather urgent that you call him back in the next 45 minutes”. So, I then took a big deep breath, and, actually I have to admit that I looked up whether the phone number was a Stockholm number and then called him back and of course and he told me and it was quite a thrill.
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