Beatrice de Gelder is still surprised by the way her classmates described her in their last year of high school: as a high-and-mighty know-it-all. Later in our conversation, though, she calls herself ‘standoffish’ and ‘always putting things into perspective’. “I don’t automatically follow the crowd or care for popular opinion. I don’t feel the need for confrontations of the type ‘this is what I stand for, this is what I fight for’. I think I’m too pragmatic for that. Every argument usually has a counterargument, and I just focus on trying to understand the arguments.”
It’s a challenge to get the professor of Social and Affective Neuroscience to talk about her background and career choices. Most people have a personal narrative they use to contextualise and interpret their path in life. De Gelder has little interest in this. “Too much deliberate reflection is limiting for a person; we’re always pigeonholing ourselves. But we’re so much more – and capable of so much more – than we see in that conscious image of ourselves. My two daughters often tell me, ‘This is just the way I am.’ My response is always, ‘You can decide on that yourself.’ I think it’s fair to say who you are when you’re 60, not when you’re 20.”
She doesn’t like complaining, either. “There are few things I get worked up about. Dogma is one of them. So are ugly architecture and opportunists.” She shrugs off the fact that she was, as a female professor in Tilburg, treated differently from her male colleagues for years.
On relocating to UM, De Gelder brought with her an individual ERC Advanced Grant with a focus on Emotional Body Expressions. Her research questions include: how do we recognise bodily expressions of emotion? What’s the underlying cognitive basis? How do disorders such as autism and schizophrenia factor in? Are there cultural or racial differences? “If someone had told me 15 years ago I’d be researching emotion, I would’ve hated the idea. I’m not a sentimental person at all and emotion is not generally seen as a ‘respectable’ topic. Although that’s starting to change, now that emotion is being placed in a biological context.”
Her group is the only one in the Netherlands that studies prosopagnosia (face blindness), a condition in which people are unable to recognise faces. Another line of research investigates nonconscious perception in patients with cortical damage. Such patients are considered medically blind; although their eyes are undamaged, the signals cannot reach the visual cortex. Yet some of these patients unconsciously perceive more than they realise. This is illustrated by a video on De Gelder’s website showing a man who is perfectly able to dodge obstacles in a narrow corridor, all the while convinced he is walking in a straight line.
Although she will have reached retirement age when her ERC Advanced Grant runs out in 2017, De Gelder considers her date of birth irrelevant. She was born near Ghent as the second of four children. Her father ran a dairy company founded by her grandfather; her mother helped with the bookkeeping and had staff to manage the household and the children. She was sent to boarding school at the age of 12. “People thought that was good for children. I have no idea if that’s true, but I had a wonderful time there. I remember reading books all night long.”
Her mother lived to the age of 96, many years after the unexpected deaths of three of her four children. “You do have to be strong, being the one who outlives everyone. You start wondering where they all are, and putting things into perspective. My mother came from a generation where you didn’t say everything out loud, but I do know she was proud of me. I don’t think we ever had any deep conversations, but I never felt as though we didn’t understand each other. You could go on forever, talking about things. I think it’s an illusion, the idea that there’ll be any last words that suddenly make everything clear.”
Why did she decide to study philosophy? “I was curious by nature and philosophy had a reputation for being difficult, which appealed to me. Mainly I just didn’t want to study psychology. It seemed to me that everyone who wanted to do that wanted to help people.” Because first-year students were not allowed to start philosophy immediately, she had to choose something else for a year. And so she found herself enrolling in psychology anyway, which in those days was strongly rooted in physics and biology. After the first year she decided to stick it out, in addition to starting philosophy. She ended up getting two degrees in five years. “I was the only one who did that. But I have to say it wasn’t particularly difficult. I still had time to work on the student magazine and have a proper student life.”
In retrospect, she would have preferred a more demanding schedule. In her view, the European university system is lacking a healthy pressure to perform. “The US has good, better and much better universities. The system in Europe is about getting the highest possible number of people up to the highest possible average. It’s a completely different ideology.”
After receiving her PhD, De Gelder became a lecturer in Philosophy of Science at Leiden University. Five years later, she took up a professorship in Tilburg in Philosophy of Science specialising in Cognitive Science. This switch from philosophy to psychology is one of the few choices in her life for which she does offer up an explanatory narrative: “Cognitive science was up and coming and I saw interesting things going on in the field. Instead of just talking without having any real knowledge, I figured we could actually do something ourselves. I suppose I’m somewhat of an experimentalist.”
Her first brain imaging study, in collaboration with University College London, focused on how the brain processes emotions that are heard and seen. “It used to be assumed that the emotions you see in a face and hear in a voice are processed separately. To me, it seemed to make much more sense that these neural processes would merge early on. As an outsider who came to the field of cognitive neuroscience in a roundabout way, I was surprised to find that the hypotheses I came up with hadn’t yet been investigated. This is why I think it’s a good idea to shake up scientific fields every once in a while.”
De Gelder spent five years making regular visits to Harvard University, as a senior scientist at the Martinos Center for Biological Imaging. Yet her success as a researcher does not appear to have affected her. “I’ve never really been directly focused on success. I mainly enjoy problems I don’t understand. Science seems to be about the pursuit of answers, but when you look closer it turns out to be the pursuit of questions. That may be a leftover bias from the philosophy of science: theories are only interesting if they can be contradicted.”
She thinks mandatory retirement ages are absurd, and disadvantageous to women in particular. “You can’t predict at which point in their career someone will do their best work. I still want to contribute more to the question of how different layers in the processing of emotion can be mapped in the brain. The neural structures we share with other species, especially the unconscious pre-linguistic structures, much more attention. And we have to place brain research on cognition and emotion in a much more evolutionary perspective if we want this research to shed light on social conflicts. This is something new methods will have to be developed for, which is very exciting.”
Beatrice de Gelder has been professor of Social and Affective Neuroscience at Maastricht University since 2012. She studied philosophy and psychology in Leuven, where she received her PhD in philosophy in 1972. In the mid-1990s, her focus shifted from the philosophy of science to cognitive science. She received an ERC Advanced Grant in 2011.