Portrait

Spellbound

Michal Lavidor, an Israeli scientist and an expert in the cognitive psychology of language at the University of Hull (UK) and the University of Bar Ilan in Israel, has set up a research network extending across six European Union countries. Fascinated by the relationship between language and the human brain, she has created her own niche in Europe.

I realised that the essence of science is to ask impertinent questions. “I realised that the essence of science is to ask impertinent questions.”

The act of reading this magazine is a skill we take for granted but it requires a sophisticated use of the human brain. More than half of the cortex – a layer of grey matter dedicated to language and abstract thought – is involved as people read. But we are only just beginning to understand how we absorb the written word and give it a specific meaning. The 2006 Marie Curie prize, awarded at the beginning of this year, revealed the significance of Michal Lavidor’s work in this field. It also highlighted the value of the research being carried out by the network she is weaving with other European cognitive science departments, whose researchers often show remarkable professional mobility. Her career, too, has taken a far from conventional route.

Her origins in Tel Aviv, from a working-class background, did not in themselves obviously point to such a high-flying future. “I did not, while growing up, dream of being a scientist, and certainly not of moving to the distant dales of Northern England – if I had heard of them – or mixing with Oxford scholars. My life now seems light years away from the bachelor’s degree completed in Computer Science and Psychology at The Hebrew University, Jerusalem – at that time an unusual qualification,” says Michal Lavidor.

In the late 1980s after graduating, she had started off in a commercial environment working for an Israeli computer consultancy, in which she was given jobs improving the user-friendliness of cashpoints. “Yes, I am a late scientist, and I feel very privileged to be able to pursue this way of life,” she says now.

Her surprise step into postgraduate studies and original choice of an offbeat bachelor’s degree seem then to be the product of a flexible and adventurous spirit. “My boss suggested I do a Masters degree purely because it would help me to raise my consultancy fees. I started my part-time MA in Experimental Psy chology and I was quickly hooked, not by the promise of money but by the prodigious progress of knowledge in this field.”

The choice makes you

From there, she began her PhD. A Marie Curie fellowship enabled her to follow her studies at York University in the UK, and then at Hull, in 2002. “New worlds started to open up,” she recalls. Lavidor’s progress is characterised by making use of “stepping stones” when they appear. “I realised that the essence of science, as Jacob Bronowski remarked, is to ask impertinent questions.” That is how she shattered earlier scientists’ assumptions about visual perception.

It had long been known that visual acuity is at its best when the object we are looking at, be it a word, picture or person, is presented at the fixation point – the centre. The part of the cortex dedicated to representing the centre is enlarged, enabling the brain to zoom into what we see in the middle. As a result, many researchers had assumed that the accuracy of vision in the central zone of vision results from representing the whole object, person or word in duplicate – using the left and right brain at the same time in order that the right and left fields of vision overlap at the centre. The possibility that the brain splits the representation in two halves had been neglected. “I intuitively felt the duplicate representation was wrong because it is not economic – if you designed a thinking machine with two processors, you wouldn’t make them do the same task. Splitting the job would be more efficient. Humans don’t behave as if they have a double representation of things,” explains Lavidor.

Through a series of tests, the conclusions of which have now been accepted, she found that when we look straight ahead we put together two halves of the represented object in the brain to make the whole. This deduction, known now as “the split fovea theory”, has significant implications for understanding visual perception in general, as well as for reading written words. The approach is likely to have a positive impact on treatment of dyslexia, as well as other disorders related to the brain functions involved in reading.

There are numerous questions raised about how we read. What sort of effect does a long word have on our brain? Why do we not need vowels in a word to understand it? How are we able to digest dense and complicated metaphors in poetry?

“I don’t go looking for concrete solutions first. I start with an intellectual curiosity – which sometimes leads me to find solutions. If a problem can benefit from a theoretical discovery, why not?”

Network creativity

Cognitive science is the subject of numerous studies on the human brain as scientists attempt to analyse our logic, intuition, insight, likes and dislikes, and our memory. “My primary objective is to observe how the particularities of the brain can adapt to a cultural invention, such as reading.”

Thanks to her passion and the desire to generate dialogue between young scientists, Michal Lavidor established herself in 2005 as one of the pillars of a thematic European research network, supported by FP6. Dubbed the RTN-Lab (Language and Brain), bringing together researchers from ten universities across six European countries.

“We put special emphasis on ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ development of language systems over the course of a lifetime”, she says. The lab consists of four research teams focusing on different aspects of developmental dyslexia and three studying the development of language throughout life, including the effects of ageing and senile dementia on word recognition.

In 2007, Lavidor is using the recent excellence award funding, as well as RTN-Lab, to support the academic development of juniors in her field. RTN-Lab establishes a core European capacity that can successfully challenge scientists in the USA and Asia. “The most important thing is to be able to seize opportunities for change and to have the freedom to take intellectual risks,” she concludes. Having chosen a fairly unusual research subject and having fought for women scientists to be able to pursue a career whilst looking after their children (she was herself supported by a house husband for six years), she is not short of initiatives. Her aim is to create a Centre for European Excellence in Cognitive Neuroscience.

Elisabeth Jeffries

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