Open Your Mind: A Q&A with neuroscientist Doug Crawford

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Doug Crawford, a Canada Research Chair and Distinguished Research Professor in the Faculty of Health.

Crawford’s research is focused on investigating the neural mechanisms behind eye-hand coordination, 3D gaze control and trans-saccadic integration.

Doug Headshot smooth
Doug Crawford

Q. Please describe your field of current research

Q. I’m a neuroscientist working on the integration of vision, memory, and action plans in the brain. Specifically, I work on the neural mechanisms that control eye and head movement, eye-hand coordination and spatial memory during eye movements.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. It seems to have been pre-destined because I did science projects on vision, behavior and human physiology in grade school. However, it was my professor/neighbour, Stan Caveney, who got me started in science and my graduate mentor, Tutis Vilis, who set me on my current path.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. Everyone knows that you can’t fix a broken car engine unless you first know how it works. Same with the brain – that’s why we do basic neuroscience. We also do work that directly applies our discoveries to patients, and some of my work is now being applied to robot design.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. We’re the only lab in the world that records from the brain while also doing 3D recordings of unimpeded eye and head motion. More generally, my lab is known for combining many different techniques (computer modeling, behavioral recordings, single neuron recordings, brain imaging and stimulation, patient studies etc.) to solve different questions in neuroscience.

Reaching 2Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. I’d like to think that understanding the brain – the one organ that really makes us human – is a noble goal in itself. It just so happens that this goal is also extremely important for dealing with a huge list of medical problems, and has many other applications, such as computer science.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.)

A. In the first study that I published from my York lab (Henriques et al., Journal of Neuroscience 1998) we tried to prove that the brain remembers visual directions relative to the head. Instead the results showed that the brain remembers visual directions relative to the eyes. Looking back, I’m grateful that we were wrong because this opened up a big line of research for us.

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. That’s a normal day at the office, and it’s what keeps research interesting. One specific concern I had upon arriving at York in the ’90s was whether we would have the facilities to do serious neuroscience, but thanks to the efforts of many York colleagues, we now rank with the best.

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. Through my work with neuroscience training programs, such as the Brain in Action CREATE Program, I’ve learned to partner with groups that I never would have expected, from high-profile European research groups to industries like advertising and computing.

TMSQ. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. Visual-motor neuroscience is interdisciplinary by nature. It lies at the intersection of psychology, biology, kinesiology, computer science, engineering, philosophy, and several areas of medicine such as neurology, ophthalmology and neurosurgery.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. From age 3 to 13 I wanted to be a paleontologist. Later, I got worried about the environment, and thought about becoming an environmental chemist, but that field was not well developed 30 years ago. Besides, I can never remember the names of all those molecules.

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. My integrated undergrad/grad course Visuospatial Memory and Goal-Directed Action, builds on work from my lab and related researchers. At the end of the course, students write an essay where they use their knowledge to explain some simple behavior, like grasping a coffee mug.

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. Forget what anyone else tells you to do; pursue the topic that fires your imagination. Nothing else will keep you going and creative through all the ups and downs of this business.

Tell us a bit about yourself:

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. Almost 30 years. My first paid position (an NSERC summer studentship) was in 1986. After that was a PhD at Western, a fellowship at McGill, and a York faculty appointment in 1994.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. I used to read a lot of philosophy and religion, everything from Nietzsche to Lao-Tzu. But these days I see moral lessons in anything from The Godfather to Lord of the Rings.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. The news, medieval history, SciFi/horror and some cheesy reality TV I’d rather not mention.

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. I’d like to have a few beers with Jim Morrison. It couldn’t be boring.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. Play with my kids, plant trees, collect swords, crank up the rock… and research of course!