Have you ever wondered how your brain really works? Stony Brook alumna Heather Berlin ’97, PhD, MPH, takes a closer look at the mysteries of the mind in the NOVA series “Your Brain.” The two-part series premiered this May on PBS and dives deep into perception, deception, and the subconscious to discover what drives decision-making.
Berlin earned a psychology degree from Stony Brook and went on to study neuroscience and psychiatry, later earning her PhD from Oxford and an MPH from Harvard. She is a cognitive neuroscientist and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York City. Through her research, she explores the interactions of the brain and mind with the hope of helping improve the treatment and prevention of psychiatric and neurological disorders.
In 2015, Berlin was named a Stony Brook 40 Under Forty honoree. She has also been featured on several programs on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and PBS.
What is this series about?
“Your Brain” takes us on a tour of the most recent findings in modern neuroscience. It is based on my research and exploration of the neural basis of consciousness and how the physical brain creates our perception and everything we experience. It dives into how we perceive the world and how our brain constructs reality for us. We also explore the unconscious, including anesthesia and sleepwalking. We look at what happens to the mind when people have various neurological abnormalities. When things go wrong with the brain, it allows us to dive deeper to really understand how things work. It’s basically a journey to find out how the brain makes us who we are.
How did the idea for the series come to life at PBS?
I was at WGBH in Boston for the Science Media Awards and Summit in the Hub conference in 2018. The longtime executive producer of NOVA, Paula Apsell, heard me speak and later asked if I had any show concepts. I pitched the idea of exploring research on the neural basis of consciousness. Once we had the concept based on my lectures, we received major funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The funding helped get the two-part docuseries made, which is special for NOVA because they usually cover a topic in one-off episodes.
In addition to hosting the series, I was also the scientific advisor for it. As a result, I was able to help structure the shows. I worked with the producers and suggested research to cover and scientists to interview. During the filming, I got to meet some of my idols, like Michael Gazzaniga, who was one of the founders of the field of cognitive neuroscience.
How long did it take to put the series together?
From the initial concept to putting it out into the world, it took about four years due to the pandemic. We were set to start filming in the spring of 2020, but that was put on hold until 2022. After that, it was an intense few months of filming across the country in different labs. But we got it done. And it aired in May 2023 and will live online forever. It was such an incredible journey.
You earned a psychology degree from Stony Brook and are now a neuroscientist and associate clinical professor of psychiatry and neuroscience. But you have been asking questions since childhood, so what fascinates you about the brain?
When I was around five years old, I wondered if I could still keep my inner thoughts if I died. I asked my father where thoughts come from, and he said ‘your brain.’ Of course, I kept asking more questions about the brain. I wanted to figure out how to keep my thoughts going even if I didn’t have a brain. And because there weren’t answers, as I grew older and set on my career path, I wanted to understand the brain and consciousness better and get those answers. It became a quest to understand how this physical three-pound piece of matter creates everything we experience and who we are. And even with all of the research, it’s a great mystery that we still don’t fully understand.
What impact, if any, did Stony Brook have on your career and success?
Stony Brook was the perfect place for me. It has many amazing science programs, and the university was close to home on Long Island. I was a psychology major and a pre-med student with a minor in fine arts. Stony Brook was a place that allowed me to focus my attention entirely on learning without distraction. It was amazing for me to be able to do research in the medical school and also engage with the theater and art departments. I would split my time between the library during the day and the Staller Center for the Arts at night. After immersing myself in the sciences, I needed the creative outlet of painting and theater. Stony Brook allowed me to have this full experience. It was nice to be close, but away from the hustle and bustle of New York City, which allowed me to focus more easily on my studies.
Stony Brook was a foundation for me. It was academically rigorous and competitive, and it taught me to cut out the extraneous stuff and focus on what’s important. And that is something that I’ve carried with me throughout my career.
You were a 2015 40 Under Forty recipient. How did that feel?
It felt great to come full circle. I love my work, but receiving this appreciation and recognition from my alma mater was also really nice, especially from the institution that laid the foundation for my career. When you’re putting in all that hard work, you can hope your achievements will be recognized, but it’s not guaranteed. I felt honored when Stony Brook reached out with this award.
You have accomplished so much in your career. What are you most proud of?
I’ve done a lot of research and written some papers I’m really proud of. But, even though I put a lot of effort into my research, there’s only a chance that experts will read it and that I will have the opportunity to present it at a conference. When I get the opportunity to share the work in my field with people who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to it — like this NOVA series — that is exciting, and doing this NOVA series is the pinnacle of all that hard work.
I feel proud that I have this knowledge and can distill it in a way that gets people excited about neuroscience.
I’m also really proud of an off-Broadway show I did about the neuroscience of creativity, which was a lot of fun. I later performed a piece of that show in London at the Apollo Theatre. It was part of a variety show, and I got to share the stage with the Cure and actor-comedian Eric Idle. During the finale, everyone got on stage and sang “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life” from “Monty Python.” That was a surreal moment for me. I’m a neuroscientist! But that theater background I gained at Stony Brook definitely comes in handy.
What advice would you give a student or alumnus considering a career in psychology or neuroscience?
Follow whatever your interests and your passions are. Don’t let people tell you no! When I was a graduate student, people told me that what I wanted to study — the neural basis of consciousness — was not a legitimate field of study. But I didn’t want to learn just neuroscience or just psychology. I was interested in the relationship between the brain and the mind, so I had to carve my own path at the time. And because I did that, and my work was interdisciplinary, I wrote several seminal papers in my field.
Also, know that if you go into academia, it is a hard path. Find good mentors who can help you on your journey. You will likely need to make some sacrifices along the way, but know that the rewards will come later. I know now that all the sacrifices I made early on got me to where I am today, and I truly love what I do.
You can watch the full series below.
Part One – Your Brain: Perception Deception
Part Two – Your Brain: Who’s In Control?