"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 department, and indeed the entire community. Richard Held succeeded him as department head. In the mid-80s Held began working with Provost John Deutch and Institute leadership on an effort to combine the Department of Psychology with neuroscience-related elements of the Whitaker College of Health Sciences, Technology, and Management to create a new department. As Held wrote in the 1985-86 Report to the President:
The major development of the year is the amalgamation of this department into a new and larger department called Brain and Cognitive Sciences beginning July 1, 1986. The new grouping will encompass disciplines, with appropriate faculty, ranging from neurobiology to cognitive science. It will be centered in Whitaker College and headed by the current Director of Whitaker, Professor Emilio Bizzi. The new and larger department will maintain and extend the activities of the pre-existing groups. Their interactions will vigorously enhance the effort to advance the frontiers of knowledge in both the brain and cognitive sciences and to develop the terra incognita between them. A timely grant of $5 million from the Fairchild Foundation for support of new faculty and students in computational neuroscience lends impetus to this program. The new department represents an innovative effort to exploit the resources available at MIT in order to further an enterprise of great promise.
As Held noted, Emilio Bizzi became head in 1986 and presided over the official launch of the new department. In 1993 the department moved to the School of Science, joining the departments of Biology, Chemistry, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Mathematics, and Physics. The following spring saw the launch of the Center for Learning and Memory, led by Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa and with Matthew Wilson as its first direct appointee. With the 1990s designated as the "Decade of the Brain" by President George H.W. Bush, School of Science dean Robert Birgenau wrote that
It is anticipated that neuroscience will become a major thrust in the School of Science in the next decade. In particular, we expect significant interdisciplinary work involving most, if not all, of the departments in the School. New interdisciplinary connects have already been made as a result of Brain and Cognitive Sciences joining the School.
Mriganka Sur became department head in 1997, and he further 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 to bring in the gift that would rename the Center for Learning and Memory to 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, Computation and Cognition, which Fee helped develop and launch in 2019); 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.