Leonardo's lecture, “Constructing Reality: What Illusions Tell Us About the Mind,” will take place the evening of May 25.

Anthony Leonardo, a group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus, will deliver a public lecture titled “Constructing Reality: What Illusions Tell Us About the Mind” at Janelia in Ashburn, VA.

Leonardo will speak on Wednesday, May 25, 2011, at 7 PM. The event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required for admission. Directions for obtaining the tickets are available on the HHMI web site at Seating is limited to 250 people.

The lecture is the ninth in a series called “Dialogues of Discovery at Janelia Farm.” Past speakers in the series have included Sean B. Carroll, vice president for science education at HHMI; Thomas R. Cech, former president of HHMI and an HHMI investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder; Roian Egnor, a fellow at Janelia; Ronald M. Evans, an HHMI investigator at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies; Timothy Harris, director of the Applied Physics and Instrumentation Group at Janelia Farm; Gerald M. Rubin, HHMI vice president and executive director of Janelia Farm; Huda Y. Zoghbi, an HHMI investigator at Baylor College of Medicine; and Charles S. Zuker, an HHMI investigator at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a senior fellow at the Janelia  Research Campus.

In his talk, Leonardo will explore the mechanistic nature of thought, starting with a series of elemental brain computations that allow us to perceive and interact with the world, and leading to recent work from his own laboratory. The brain’s computations are understood most viscerally when they are demonstrated through various sensory illusions, which Leonardo will share with the audience. “We tend to think of illusions as flaws in our sensory systems, little mistakes that nature has permitted to exist,” he says. “But a closer inspection shows us something deeper: Our perceptions are not a mirror of the world; they are a highly derived set of computations. When perceptions fail, we call them illusions; when they succeed we call them ‘real.’ But in both cases the brain is continually weaving our reality out of the threads of limited sensory information and educated guesswork.”

Leonardo’s research is driven by his desire to understand how groups of interconnected neurons solve complex problems. He received his B.S. in Cognitive Science from Carnegie Mellon University, where he worked on problems in artificial intelligence. He received his Ph.D. in Computation and Neural Systems in 2002 from Caltech, where he studied the neural mechanisms underlying the production of birdsong. He then completed postdoctoral work at Bell Labs and Harvard University. Since 2008 he has been at Janelia Farm, where his laboratory studies the neural basis of prey capture in salamanders and dragonflies. The goal of these studies is to bridge the macroscopic world of behavior and the microscopic world of neural circuits, by exploring how moment-by-moment changes in brain cell activity drives changes in behavior. According to Leonardo, prey capture is sophisticated enough that understanding it will be a significant step beyond the more autonomous behaviors that have been well characterized. “Yet for all its behavioral richness, prey capture is not overwhelmingly complex,” he says. “The basic loop from sensation to motor output is only a few processing stages; these computations begin in early visual circuits in which scientists already have some degree of strong computation footing.” Ultimately Leonardo hopes to characterize the entire sequence of circuit dynamics underlying prey capture, from the eyes to the muscles, thereby forming a closed-loop system.

Leonardo has been awarded the Donald B. Lindsley Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience, the Young Investigator Award of the International Society for Neuroethology, and the Capranica Foundation Prize in Neuroethology.

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