The Genius of Karl Deisseroth

On a road trip recently, I listened to Tim Ferriss’s interview with Dr. Andrew Huberman. In the wide-ranging interview, Huberman mentioned high regards for the intellect, productivity, and scientific discoveries of Karl Deisseroth. Huberman spoke as if Deisseroth was not just one of the great scientists of our eras, but also one of our greatest intellects.

I made a mental note to read more, and when I arrived home from my road trip I found a New Yorker article from 2015 about Dr. Deisseroth. I read it that night and found the whole thing fascinating.

Deisseroth is a groundbreaking psychiatrist and bioengineer whose research has already yielded several breakthroughs. He is, however, not that old and also has a large family with his wife, who herself is an accomplished neuroscientist.

As you know I am neither a neuroscientist nor a bioengineer. So I barely understand the significance of his research, nor do I even have an inkling of how difficult such research is. I am, however, an avid reader and was amazed at the description of Deisseroth’s voracious reading habits and astonishing memory. From the New Yorker article:

He was in the third grade when he learned that his own brain functioned in an unusual way. A teacher asked the class to choose a poem to recite from memory. Deisseroth opened his reader, looked at a page containing “The Road Not Taken,” and put his hand up. When the teacher explained that he needed to memorize the poem first, he said that he already had, and recited it. The teacher, disbelieving, spent the rest of the class calling on him to quickly glance at a poem and then recite it. “It kind of turned into a circus act,” Deisseroth says.

He remains a preternaturally fast and retentive reader. At a recent conference, he attended a talk by David and Nic Sheff, the father-and-son authors of the addiction memoirs “Beautiful Boy” and “Tweak.” In the course of an hour, while listening to the two men, Deisseroth read both books in their entirety. He does not use the standard techniques of speed-reading but, instead, sees printed pages “in blocks,” he says, and instantly “fills in gaps.” Colleagues suggest that this ability helped Deisseroth to acquire the wide-ranging knowledge necessary for the development of optogenetics, which required a working familiarity with virology, optics, animal behavior, genetics, 3-D imaging, microbiology, materials science, and chemistry.

If this is accurate and not an exaggeration (either by Deisseroth or by the journalist), then this is an amazing ability. It reminds me of Tyler Cowen’s statements on reading; the story of the poem memorization is oddly similar to the story of Dr. Samuel Johnson memorizing a long poem at a young age in the time it took his mother to walk up their stairs.

Another interesting this was his description of his need for stillness in order to concentrate:

His unusual calm has allowed him to compartmentalize competing demands (fatherhood, marriage, neuroscience, literary endeavors, clinical psychiatry, speaking appearances at dozens of conferences a year), so that he can think through complex problems. He told me that, while many people find that walking or jogging shakes ideas loose from the subconscious, he needs to quell all physical activity. “Otherwise, I get this disruption from the motor cortex,” he said. “I have to be totally still.” Ideas come floating up “like a bubble in liquid.” At that point, he goes into an excitable motor state, pacing or scribbling down ideas.

The whole article is worth reading to get an insight into the significance of his breakthroughs. His productivity and his intellect, though, struck me as most interesting and most unusual.

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