Interdisciplinarity and the Study of Mind

Renato M.E. Sabbatini, PhD and Silvia Helena Cardoso, PhD

 | See the image | What is interdisciplinarity | The importance of interdisciplinarity | The interdisciplinary professional | Conclusions

The study of the mind and of its biological basis is one of the greatest scientific endeavors of all times. It is the key to the definitive understanding of the very nature of human beings.

However, the sheer complexity of the nervous system and the many methodological barriers which exist on the way to the objective study of its structure and function, require extensive collaboration among the scientific disciplines. Molecular and cellular biology, developmental biology, genetics, biochemistry, biophysics, pharmacology, electronics, information technology, biomedical engineering, mathematics, statistics, physics, cognitive sciences, psychology, linguistics and many others converge and intermesh in what is probably the most interdisciplinary of all sciences.

The explanation of this is simple: neuroscience is essentially integrative, because its object of study is an integrative organ !

But what is a discipline, and what is interdisciplinarity ? What it is its value today and how to achieve it ? What are the differences between interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity ? As neuroscience sets forth to undertake the most challenging of all scientific enquiries, this understanding is important for many things.

What is Interdisciplinarity ?

According to Moti Nissani (1), a discipline is "any comparatively self-contained and isolated domain of human experience which possesses its own community of experts, with distinctive components such as shared goals, concepts, facts, tacit skills, and methodologies".

Interdisciplinarity, on the other hand, is "the bringing together of distinctive components of two or more disciplines" in research or education, leading to new knowledge which would not be possible without this integration. Multidisciplinarity occurs when disciplines work side by side in distinct problems of aspects of a single problem. Interdisciplinarity occurs when disciplines intermesh, integrate and collaborate among themselves.

For example, the membrane of a neuron can be studied separately by chemistry or physics as a complex phase of organic molecules with distinctive electrical properties; abstracting entirely the fact that it is part of a living cell and the result of organic evolution. This is multidisciplinary research. However, when the membrane's structure, properties and functions are studied using a approach combining the contributions of several disciplines working together, we have interdisciplinarity. For example, in a research project described as "the influence of second messenger systems upon the molecular conformation of ionic channels and its consequence on integration of input information by dendritic fields of genetically defective neurons in the visual area, using electronic imaging and micromachined electrodes" we note the collaboration of the disciplines of biochemistry, biophysics, neuroanatomy, cell biology, genetics, electrophysiology, electronics, chemistry and engineering. among others. The outcome of this seemingly important research would not be possible without their integration.

The degree of interdisciplinarity in any realm may vary, of course. Nissani proposes to characterize the degree of interdisciplinary integration according to four criteria:

Interdisciplinarity evolves, too. What was interdisciplinary in the past, such as the integration between biology and physics, became a discipline (e.g., biophysics), with its own set of experts, conferences, journals, professional societies, committees, graduate courses and students, methods and even established professions (in Germany and Canada, for instance, medical informatics is now an undergraduate curriculum).

The Importance of Interdisciplinarity

Leonardo da Vinci represented an ideal which is no longer attainable: the "Renaissance man", who as able to master simultaneously many forms and domains of knowledge. Leonardo was a remarkable painter, writer, philosopher, engineer and cosmologist. The explosion of knowledge which started in the Enlightenment and Industrial eras, and which continues at terrifying pace in our current Information Era (the National Library of Medicine estimates that the published medical knowledge is doubling in size every four years !), it is impossible to any single scientist to encompass anything larger than his or her minuscule field of specialty.

The consequence, in the words of Leland Miles (2) is that "as knowledge has exploded and fragmented, it has become possible for an individual to comprehend only a few of the fragments. To avoid drowning in the ever expanding ocean of knowledge, each of us typically grasps for one or two floating spars which we clutch as if our life depended on them and thereafter seldom look to the right or left. To look beyond one's own spar is to be overwhelmed by the ocean's magnitude: better to remain ignorant of all but our own tiny province."

Thus, new research eventually may come to a halt unless we learn to cooperate through interdisciplinary research and education. The greatest hurdle for this is, of course, the way in which universities are organized. The departmental model, where disciplines are isolated, separately taught and researched, with very little in common, is doomed, because it hampers interaction and integration. Students do not learn how to work with interdisciplinary teams, how to think in interdisciplinary ways; therefore they will only repeat their teacher's limititations. The unfolding of interdisciplinarity will require a true revolution, an encompassing reform in our laboratories and schools. Neuroscience has been exemplary in showing the new ways: all over the world, many interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary neuroscience research centers and educational programs have been succesfully launched and funded.

The Interdisciplinary Profession

In order to advance interdisciplinary programs, a new kind of professional is required: one who is able to work comfortably and to interact simultaneously with the specialists of many of the disciplines which are being integrated. Someone must have the overarching vision of what the project is about, and how and when the different disciplines are going to interact.

We can understand how this professional should be made up, by examining the following conceptual model:

The Interdisciplinary




Figure: The Interdisciplinary Researcher: On the Wall, that is, he or she does not have in-depth knowledge of the disciplinary domains but has a reasonable command over both; what is just required to propose, to coordinate and to integrate the members of the interdisciplinary team.

We may imagine that two researchers who work in separate and dissimilar domains of knowledge are unable to look beyond their disciplines, "over the walls", so to say. The interdisciplinary researcher, however, "sits on the wall" and is able to view both sides simultaneously. He or she does not have an in-depth knowledge of the disciplinary domains, but has a reasonable command over both; what is just required to propose, to coordinate and to integrate the members of the interdisciplinary team.

For example: we wish to understand how a population of neurons encode sensory information. To do this, we must bring together a cell neurophysiologist, a mathematician and a software engineer, so that a proper methodology using single cell recording, computerized data acquisition and mathematical analysis of neuron behavior can be implemented, learned and used. The existence of a team's leader with knowledge and experience in all these areas will facilitate tremendously the development of such a project.


It is easy to see that the advancement of the neurosciences will rely more and more on interdisciplinary approaches on the next years. This poses a great challenge to the neuroscientific establishment, particularly in the way neuroscientists are trained. Generally speaking, biologists do not appreciate the exact sciences and are wary of the methods of engineering and mathematics. Their professional profile is still too "soft", too devoid of the knowledge and interactions which are required to be a modern and effective professional. This must be changed, and a new kind of neurobiologist must arise. Large resources must also be expended toward the training of the new  "interdisciplinary professional" we have described above.

A particular area appears as challenging enough to require its own kind of interdisciplinary effort and dedicated professionals: how we are going to collect, systematize and disseminate the huge amount of scientific information about the brain and the mind. In last month's editorial in  "Brain & Mind" (3) we have shown that informatics and computer networks are now essential for this endeavor. The Human Brain Project is one of the most impressive interdisciplinary programs which were proposed to face this challenge. A strong collaboration between informatics and neurosciences has been a vital component for its brain mapping efforts (4).


  1. Nissani, Moti. "Fruits, salads, and smoothies: a working definition of interdisciplinarity." Journal of Educational Thought 26: 2, 1995.
  2. Miles, Leland. "Renaissance and academe: the elusiveness of the Da Vinci ideal". Phi Kappa Phi, 1989.
  3. Cardoso, Silvia Helena. The impact of Internet on the neurosciences". Brain & Mind Magazine, 1(5), 1998. URL:
  4. Pechura, Constance M. and Martin, Joseph B. (Editors). Mapping the Brain and its Functions. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1991. URL:
The Authors
Silvia Helena Cardoso, PhD. Psychobiologist, master and doctor in Sciences by the University of São Paulo and post doctoral fellowship by the University of California, Los Angeles. Invited Professor and Associate Researcher of the Center for Biomedical Informatics, State University of Campinas (Unicamp), Brazil. She is also editor-in-chief of  "Brain & Mind" magazine, and associate editor of Intermedic, a journal on Internet and Medicine.
Renato M.E. Sabbatini is a neuroscientist with a PhD in neurophysiology of behavior by the University of São Paulo, Brasil, and a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Behavioral Physiology of the Max-Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Munich, Germany. Currently, Dr. Sabbatini is the director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics and Chairman of Medical Informatics of the Medical School of the State University of Campinas, Campinas, Brazil. He is also the associate editor of "Brain & Mind" magazine, and editor-in-chief of Intermedic, a journal on Internet and Medicine.

Center for Biomedical Informatics
State University of Campinas, Brazil

Copyright 1998 State University of Campinas