Interview with Rita Levi-Montalcini on the Occasion of Her 100th Birthday
Conducted in March 2009 by EDAB member Piergiorgio Strata based on questions from EDAB
1) To what do you attribute your awareness and brain activity at 100 years old?
I always maintain my brain functioning, though I’m not that concerned about myself. But I am aware of the world around me and have special concerns to help tens of millions of people, who still die of hunger every day, by combating ignorance and privileges.
2) Would you say you’re keeping your brain alive or that it is keeping you alive?
In fact it is not that easy to differentiate between the influence of the mind over the body and vice versa. The brain is not able to function if the body is not in good shape: I wouldn’t be able to work if I suffered from a disease.
3) What message about the brain do you hope your readers would take home?
Our brain is made up of different parts: the paleocortical or limbic part is archaic, emotional and aggressive. It did not develop during the substantial evolution of sub-primate mammals. Homo sapiens is practically the same as other animals in this respect. The difference from other living species is the enormous development of the neocortical component, which resulted in the evolution of language not that long ago. The tragedies of history, the Holocaust for example, and other dramatic events, are the result of predominance of the paleocortical emotive component over the neocortical cognitive component.
Accordingly, the message is to maximize the cognitive capacities, resulting from the neocortical component’s activity, as they prevail over the emotive-aggressive limbic component.
4) How closely do you follow current research? What do you consider the most promising work being done now?
Scientific and technological processes move at a very rapid pace and the brain is under intense study. Nevertheless, despite my poor vision, but thanks to friends, to personal relationships and to magnified reading glasses, I do follow. I’m up-to-date, particularly in neurobiology and neuroscience.
But it is difficult for me to tell which are the most promising fields of research. Our brain is not genetically programmed as it is for insects. Humans are continuously under the influence of the environment. Studying the role of the environment on our brain is certainly an extremely interesting field right now.
5) Which area of neuroscience would you advise aspiring neuroscientists to study today?
It’s very difficult to say. Neurosciences include such wide areas. Maybe it would be important to know how to improve the cognitive capacities of the neocortical component of the brain.
6) If you would start a career today what you would study?
I would try to substantially improve our brain’s cognitive capacities, while diminishing the archaic capacities of a limbic-affective nature, the prevalence of the latter being responsible for so many world tragedies.