A tale of integration of psychology and the neurosciences

Interview with Carles Escera, professor at the Faculty of Psychology, head of the research group BrainLab and former director of the Institute of Neurosciences of the University of Barcelona (UB). Escera talks about his years at the Institute and about the future. You can read the original interview on the website of the Institute of Neurosciences of the UB, here.

You have been the director of the Institute of Neuroscience for many years, was it a lot of work?

I have been the director of the Institute for eight years. Although the work did not have many complications, it required dedication, as there were many issues to attend to. Also, I directed the then Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour Research (IR3C), which evolved to include also the neurosciences. We came to have three times the amount of researchers, six times the number of research lines and we became present in up to four diferent campuses: the complexity and the diversity grew a lot (by the establishment of the Institute of Neurosciences).

Carles Escera, former director of the Institute of Neurosciences of the UB.
Carles Escera, former director of the Institute of Neurosciences of the UB.

How was IR3C (Institute on Brain, Cognition and Behaviour Research) born and with what purpose?

I think we were lucky to witness such a historical process in the field of psychology in the UB and in Spain. This is something that has yet happened in other places many years ago: the institutional recognition of scientific psychology. Although this concept existed already, there was a dichotomous and confronted view between the two epistemological views of psychology: that of Positive Psychology (concerned with the factors that contribute the most to a fulfilling life) and that of Phenomenology (the psychological study of subjective experience).

The creation of IR3C was the determining step towards the acceptance of psychology as a positivist science without distinctions among the academic community and society in general. After that, we started growing and we began functioning as a research institute. Actually, before becoming the Institute of Neurosciences and doing research on psychology, we were the third or fourth biggest institute of the University of Barcelona, regarding resource raising and publications.

Why did IRC3 transform into the Institute of Neurosciences?

The transition from IR3C to the Institute of Neurosciences was the consummation of the second globally accepted reality here. That is, psychology being part of neurosciences, and of brain sciences. We are what we are because we have a nervous system, a brain. A brain that interacts with our surroundings and that makes us an organism, an entity, but which never stops depending on the former (the nervous system)

Therefore, neuroscience is the way to understand these complex phenomena: it ranges from the observation of the ion exchange between neurons through its membrane, to the analysis of behaviour. Accepting psychology firstly as a positivist science, and then as a discipline in neurosciences, results from a natural evolution that has occurred in other universities as well.

What was the transformation process of the institute like?

The management was more complex after becoming the Institute of Neurosciences. Before that, with IR3C, its management covered an area mostly about psychology, and it was limited to one physical location too, Campus Mundet, where I knew everyone. The Institute of Neurosciences covers a wider area in which there are issues I do not know deeply about. It is distributed over four campuses and I do not know every researcher: it is harder to manage.

How were researchers invited to become members of the Institute?

The growth of the institute was done together with the Vice-rector’s Office of Research: we identified everyone working in neurosciences and invited them directly to take part in this. We conducted an open call to everyone interested in joining the Institute, and we had a positive response. There were about one-hundred researchers in the former IR3C. After that call, we received around two hundred applications.

Now that you are no longer the director of the Institute, what are your plans for the future?

Those are plans that have nothing to do with management… On the one hand, I would like to spend a sabbatical year abroad to do research. As I cannot do that, I would like to have a “functional” sabbatical. I mean, to be able to temporarily disengage and temporarily disconnect from some commitments. I want to focus on research and start new projects.

What are those new projects?

We started working on the creation of a new research institute. As the director of the Institute of Neurosciences, I was involved in all the creation phases of the institute and it is now fully functioning.

The new institution is the Research Institute of Sant Joan de Déu. It was created at the request of the Sant Joan de Déu Research Foundation with the collaboration of Hospital Sant Joan de Déu, the Parc Sanitari Sant Joan de Déu, the Institute of Biomedicine (IBUB), the Institute of Neurosciences of the UB, and the Research Centre for Biomedical Engineering of Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (CREB).

These institutions have together created the institute, which is at the frontier between paedriatrics and human development during the cycle of life. It gathers five main areas of research: metabolic and adult diseases originated during childhood, infectious diseases, cancer, neurological diseases and rare diseases. There are, however, also some other fields of research as well.

The idea is to launch projects at the Hospital Sant Joan de Déu within the framework of the new research institute, where I want to develop my research line. In fact, we have yet launched a project studying a marker of brain activity in babies, with regard to the processing of language sounds. It could be applied to cases indicating a possible delay in neurodevelopment. The aim is to go one step further and offer a universal cognitive screening to be applied to all births, as it is a quick and bloodless test. We do not want to determine the characteristics of the physiological response but to be able to relate it, through a study of brain mapping, with the maturation of hearing.

Image credits:

Frontpage picture of Sigmund Freud downloaded from Wikimedia Commons, and licensed with an Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license.

Picture of Prof. Carles Escera taken with permission from the original article by the Institute of Neurosciences of the University of Barcelona.