Hidehiko Inagaki joined the Max Planck Florida Institute as a research group leader studying neural dynamics and cognitive functions. He aims to demystify the brain functions underlying decision making and time perception.
JUPITER — When neuroscientist Hidehiko Inagaki looks at seemingly mundane behaviors, his own brain fills with complex questions.
Why, for instance, does the same sandwich or slice of pizza, seen by the same person, provoke wildly different reactions depending on the situation?
“Our behaviors heavily depend on information internal to the brain, which we call internal states,” Inagaki says. “For example, even when we look at the same food, depending on how hungry we are, our response can be totally different.”
Inagaki last year joined the Max Planck Florida Institute as a research group leader studying neural dynamics and cognitive functions. He aims to demystify the brain functions underlying decision making and time perception.
“During college, I had a research project involving machine learning, which made me wonder how our actual brain works,” he says. “I was really shocked about how little we know about the brain, and that is why I decided to study it.”
Inagaki, a native of Japan, completed his doctoral degree at the prestigious California Institute of Technology. He won the Max Planck Society Free Floater Competition, which let him work at any of Max Planck’s 80-plus labs around the world.
After getting a taste of American-style research at CalTech, he decided to stay in the U.S.
Hometown: Tokyo. I did my Ph.D. at CalTech, and I live in Jupiter now.
About your research: I’m interested in neurocircuits. My big goal is to understand our cognitive functions and our motor functions. This is like a big mystery. We don’t understand time perception or short-term memory. I’m really interested in the stopwatch in the brain. We have no clue which part of the brain is responsible for that. The other thing is the mechanism that controls action. When you’re driving, you wait a moment, and then you go. Some people, like Parkinson’s patients, have a hard time initiating action.
Source of funding for your lab: My funding is internal. Max Planck Florida is amazingly good in terms of providing internal funding. I’m going to start applying for external funding. I have two people in addition to me.
Best advice you’ve received: My grandfather was a medical doctor. He always told me to be unique. Don’t follow what other people are doing. I think I have been doing pretty unique research. Not too many people come to the U.S. from Japan.
Best science book you’ve ever read: Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior by Jonathan Weiner. It’s about Seymour Benzer from CalTech. I overlapped with him for a year. Back then, nobody studied flies. Why study behavior in a fly? It’s just a fly. That went along with my grandfather’s advice about being unique.
Biggest mistake you’ve made in your career: I wish I had come to the U.S. earlier. I like the education system in the U.S. I like the way the classes are run compared to Japan. There’s a lot of classes based on discussion and really thinking about your own idea. That’s what you need in college. You want to present your idea and debate it.
Biggest surprise since you moved to Florida: The pleasant surprise is how easy it is to do research here. Max Planck Florida makes it really easy for scientists to focus on science.