How is your brain processing the words you are reading right now? That’s the focus of neurocognitive scientist Phillip Holcomb’s nearly five decades of research
Before Phillip Holcomb could learn how to decode the brain, he first needed to tackle computer coding.
The year was 1976, and the computer was sitting in a lab in San Diego State University’s Life Sciences building, collecting dust because nobody had figured out how to use it. It was the university’s first-ever lab-based research computer and it had the ability, in theory, to collect physiological measurements like heart rate and temperature, vitals that were just starting to be captured electronically.
Holcomb was fascinated by the relationship between brain and behavior, so when his professor, psychophysiologist Jerry Koppman, offered him a role in his lab, Holcomb seized the opportunity. Koppman’s first project for the student: get the fancy new computer to work and interface with physiological recording equipment used to monitor brain and other body activity.
“Programming a computer in 1976 was not easy, no one at SDSU knew how to do it,” Holcomb said, recalling late nights (or, rather, mornings) spent at the lab, sifting through a book on Fortran and learning how to code. He ended up becoming the lab’s go-to computer whiz, and after the programming was finished he took up the science of neurocognition, endeavoring to unpack the neural phenomena of arguably our most precious organ.
Holcomb has come full circle and is now an SDSU professor and prolific cognitive neuroscience researcher focused on the brain mechanics that allow humans to read. Humankind has been communicating and using language for thousands upon thousands of years, but only in the last few hundred years has reading become ubiquitous.
“We are really interested in how, with your eyes and the visual parts of your brain, we interpret these little squiggles on a page, and do it quickly and effortlessly,” Holcomb said.
“If the brain hasn’t evolved for reading, then how do we do it?” Holcomb asked. “As we read, the brain basically co-opts areas developed for other skills. One of the things the human brain is really good at is adapting and acquiring skills.”
Holcomb is the 2023 recipient of the Albert W. Johnson Research Lectureship, SDSU’s highest research honor. His lecture, “Reading in the Brain: Unraveling the Neural Mechanisms Underlying Visual Language Comprehension,” is scheduled for 3-6 p.m. March 15 at Montezuma Hall at the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union.
The award comes with $30,000 in research support and title of distinguished professor. For the first time, the ceremony and lecture will also include 2023 recipients of the inaugural SDSU Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity (RSCA) Awards.
“Since Phil came to SDSU a decade ago, he has brought in more than $7 million to further critical research on the way our brain operates, all the while being a phenomenal colleague and esteemed mentor to our student researchers,” said Hala Madanat, vice president for research and innovation.
The science of reading
After graduating SDSU in 1977 with a degree in psychology, Holcomb earned his doctorate at New Mexico State University and completed a postdoctoral research post at San Diego’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He spent three decades as a professor at Tufts University, where he earned a coveted National Institutes of Health (NIH) MERIT Award, a rare and highly prestigious grant that allows for a broader range of investigation than standard NIH grants.
Holcomb came back to SDSU, where his passion for science was first sparked, in 2013 as a professor and cognitive neuroscience researcher.
Through years of research, Holcomb, his lab members, and collaborators developed a model to untangle the steps involved in recognizing written words. His research group is the first to map out the series of steps the brain takes when reading. The model, dubbed Bimodal Interactive Activation, was developed by using EEG readings and imaging to map brain activity when reading.
“Underlying reading is a very elaborate, very complicated set of sensory and cognitive processes,” Holcomb said. “Better understanding of those processes may allow us to better address learning differences like dyslexia and autism and provide more effective interventions for such individuals.”
During his career, Holcomb published 225 peer-reviewed articles in leading neuroscience and cognitive psychology journals.
“Holcomb has been one of the world’s leading pioneers in using electrophysiological techniques to study the inner workings of the human brain,” an interdisciplinary group of SDSU professors wrote in his nomination packet for the AWJ Lectureship. “His colleagues and former students speak to the transformative effect that he has had on their careers, helping them become leaders in the field of cognitive neuroscience.”
Today, at SDSU, Holcomb mentors both graduate and undergraduate students, paying forward the guidance he first received at SDSU some 45 years ago.
His lab has some 20 computers, but none of his students are spending the night coding. Holcomb leaves that work to the IT professionals, and instead trains his students on how to collect data, conduct research ethically and manage their own research projects.
“The level of enthusiasm that they have is contagious. They get so excited about stuff when they learn about it,” Holcomb said. “It’s easy to become jaded, but I have mentored many students that I know will make significant contributions to science and that is very rewarding.”