What We're Reading: Projections by Karl Deisseroth

I am not the first to predict that Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, will someday be taking an all-expenses-paid trip to Stockholm in December.

Dr. Deisseroth is a professor of psychiatry, bioengineering, and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. In his 2021 book, Projections: A Story of Human Emotions, he describes his ground-breaking work in optogenetics, a field he effectively invented.

It is the stuff of science fiction, and it is this achievement that has many believe there is a Nobel Prize in his future. Here’s what others are saying about the book:

A groundbreaking tour of the human mind that illuminates the biological nature of our inner worlds and emotions, through gripping, moving—and, at times, harrowing—clinical stories

“[A] scintillating and moving analysis of the human brain and emotions.”—Nature

“Beautifully connects the inner feelings within all human beings to deep insights from modern psychiatry and neuroscience.”—Robert Lefkowitz, Nobel Laureate

The science described in Projections is undeniably incredible, yet that is not what I found most compelling about the book. What I found so powerful was Deisseroth’s profound and moving compassion for his patients, even those who were extremely difficult, even dangerous. He writes of autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, bulimia, and dementia not as an outside observer, but as he imagines the person suffering would experience the world, given his deep insights into their diseases. (And he does so in eloquent prose that is as beautiful to read as it is insightful – how one person can be so masterful at so many things is in and of itself astounding…)

So what is this field of optogenetics that Karl Deisseroth invented? Grossly simplified, optogenetics allows scientists to activate very specific regions of the brain—down to a single neuron—using light. We have long been able to stimulate different regions of the brain using tiny electrical probes. That technology led to many advancements, yet it is limited for the simple reason that the entire brain is electrically active. It is impossible to apply an electrical stimulus to just one spot without affecting adjacent areas. It’s like trying to apply an electrical charge to a single point on a big copper plate. The charge might start in a specific location, but it instantly conducts throughout. In the brain, you never really know if the result you observed was due to the neurons you directly stimulated, or because the charge also bled over to nearby cells. Electrical stimulation is useful, but imprecise, and to understand specific connections in the brain, precise matters.

Optogenetics overcomes this problem elegantly while also offering visibility into interwoven networks of neurons that were previously hidden. How does it work? The short version is that Deisseroth and his team devised a way to get brain cells to produce a light-sensitive protein borrowed from green algae, and he delivers the DNA instructions for producing that protein into the target cells using a custom engineered virus. But, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” When one digs deeper into the details of how optogenetics really works and what it means for brain science—the far-reaching implications for research, diagnosis, and treatment—one could reasonably conclude that it is actual magic.

Interesting, perhaps, but why is this relevant to leadership, management, and the workplace? It is relevant because all of those challenging endeavors originate in one’s own human brain, and are ultimately about understanding and interacting with other humans experiencing the world through their brains. Anyone who has undertaken this challenge understands that working and collaborating with others can be perplexing, frustrating, even maddening. It is hard enough to understand and manage one’s own thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. It becomes exponentially more difficult when you connect dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of us together and call it a company.

Deisseroth’s work, described in Projections, offers new understandings of why we do what we do and why we feel how we feel, and understanding what is really behind even the most difficult experiences and behaviors can make it a little more objective, a little less frustrating. While his case studies describe relatively severe mental health problems, his insights from both his research and his clinical practice are broadly applicable. With the new understanding they offer, you might find yourself, as I have, a little less likely to blame, and a little more open, and a bit more curious about what you and those around you are experiencing, and we think leaders who are open and curious make the workplace—and the world—a better place.

Large groups of connected small things, it seems, can achieve almost anything – if connected in the right way. – Karl Deisseroth (from Projections)

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