"MIT has always believed the mind and the brain should be studied together."
—Mriganka Sur, Department Head, 1997–2012
What is now the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) started as the Psychology Section of the Department of Economics and Social Sciences. Hans-Lukas Teuber, one of the founders of neuropsychology, came to MIT in 1960 to develop the section into a full-fledged Department of Psychology, which happened four years later. Teuber’s vision – that to understand questions of the mind, we must study the brain – was revolutionary at the time. But this concept drives the field today.
Video: From Mind to Brain: BCS at 50
In 1977, Hans-Lukas Teuber disappeared while swimming off Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, a shock to the neuropsychiatric community. Richard Held succeeded him as department head. During Held's tenure we became the Department of Psychology and Brain Science, underscoring the breadth of our work and our commitment to the neurosciences.
Under Emilio Bizzi, whose leadership began in 1986, the department merged with the neuroscience program of the Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology. Research efforts intensified, and in 1993 the department moved from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences to the School of Science, joining the departments of Biology, Chemistry, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Mathematics, and Physics.
Mriganka Sur became department head in 1997, and he transformed the structure and infrastructure underlying brain science at MIT. Sur saw his mission as building BCS into a world-class academic and research center; he recruited key faculty in areas including molecular neuroscience and brain imaging. Beyond adding individual faculty, Sur worked with Institute leadership and benefactors to establish the McGovern Institute for Brain Research in 2000 and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory in 2002. The faculty and resources these centers brought raised the profile and impact of neuroscience at MIT and also emphasized the need for a unified research facility dedicated to brain research. In 2005, Building 46 was completed and the McGovern, the Picower, and the department came together under one roof for the first time.
In 2012, James DiCarlo took over as department head, and during his term the department continued its robust expansion, especially in areas related to computational neuroscience and the productive interplay between developing predictive models of neural systems which are then tested against and improved by comparison with empirical data. DiCarlo also prioritized the development of a building-wide culture which included important new programs to support diversity, equity, and inclusion. It was also during DiCarlo's tenure as head that the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing was established and quickly became an important partner. DiCarlo was also a founder of the MIT Quest for Intelligence, an interdepartmental center founded in 2018 to explore the origins of human intelligence. In 2020, DiCarlo announced that he would step down as department head to become director of the Quest, which moved under the College.
Michale Fee succeeded DiCarlo, becoming department head in May 2021. He plans to continue the initiatives begun under DiCarlo’s leadership — in academics (especially Course 6-9); mentoring; and diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) — while maintaining the highest standards of excellence in research and education.
We begin this next chapter more committed than ever to the core principles that have guided the department since its inception: to increase our understanding of the mechanisms and cognitive processes of the human brain, and maintain MIT’s position at the forefront of discovery.