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Riitta Hari: The exploration of the human brain and mind is captivating

Neuroscientist, physician, professor emerita, Aalto professor and academician Riitta Hari talks in a ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview about the wide-spread research on bodily maps of emotions, her school visits, the Low Temperature Laboratory, and convergence research.
Riitta Hari by Ville Malja, Ateneum-lehti
Photo: Ville Malja, Ateneum magazine

You are a neuroscientist, physician, professor emerita, Aalto professor and academician. What was your path to the Helsinki University of Technology (Aalto’s predecessor)?

In 1982, I moved from a secure specialist physician’s position in Meilahti hospital to become a researcher at the then Helsinki University of Technology, at the invitation of the director of the Low Temperature Laboratory. I enjoyed the full-time research work, and after a while the hospital no longer wanted to extend my leave of absence. I had to make a choice. So, I left my hospital post and started as a junior Academy researcher. It took me 14 years to get any kind of post at the Helsinki University of Technology.

Olli Lounasmaa was the director of the Low Temperature Laboratory when you came to Helsinki University of Technology. Is there something specific you learned from him?

Olli Lounasmaa was a very open-minded person who appreciated enthusiastic researchers regardless of their educational background. When I had just started, Lounasmaa went on sabbatical. His deputy instructed me that under no circumstances should I train researchers who would fall between the Academy's scientific councils. I have not followed this instruction.

Olli Lounasmaa taught me that research works best in reasonably confined spaces. According to him, ten meters is a distance where half of the information gets lost: the further you are from another researcher, the fewer unexpected conversations arise, and the more refreshing science gossip goes unheard. This is food for thought for remote workers as well.

Bodily maps of emotions, illustration: Enrico Glerean.
‘A huge number of people still contact the research team and ask if they can use this image of the bodily map of emotions publication in their own book, publication or teaching,’ says Hari. Image: https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1321664111

The research on bodily maps of emotions has spread very widely around the world in the last ten years. How did that happen?

The research was led by our aivoAALTO project’s senior researcher Lauri Nummenmaa, who currently is a professor at the University of Turku. The article has indeed been viewed an astonishing 3.5 million times on the PNAS journal’s website. The popularity is certainly due in part to the stunning visualisation done by Enrico Glerean, an Aalto researcher. People were truly inspired by it and made even jokes about it on Twitter (currently X), for instance, that the body map of shame looks like Spider Man and the body map of anger looks like Iron Man clenching his fists.

In this work, we showed that although people are different, it is possible to demonstrate systematic features in their subjective bodily maps, provided that the sample is large enough. Using the Internet, we collected data from nearly a thousand people. Our subsequent studies have involved many more participants, in one case from over 100 countries. 

The data collection and visualisation tools have been made openly available, leading to numerous follow-up studies around the world. In my own research, this gratifyingly widespread research on bodily maps has been a small but interesting side-track, as I have mainly studied the human brain by measuring its function.

The further you are from another researcher, the fewer unexpected conversations arise. This is food for thought for remote workers as well.

Riitta Hari

What makes your work still meaningful?

For me the exploration of the human brain and mind is still fascinating and captivating. It is particularly rewarding to work with researchers with different backgrounds ranging from medicine, neuroscience, physics, and engineering to psychology and even arts.

As an emerita, I moved in 2016 to work at the Department of Art, then located in Arabia, close to my home. At first, I wrote intensively to "clear the table" on unfinished research and co-authored a textbook on magnetoencephalography, MEG–EEG Primer (Oxford University Press), with an US colleague. The second extended edition of the book is coming out these days. I’m currently working two days a week in Väre, where, in addition to some small writing and teaching duties, I will soon resume a study circle with students to push the boundaries of art and neuroscience.

You moved from the School of Science to the School of Arts, Design and Architecture. What's different about the culture of these two schools?

It has been our tradition at the School of Science to recruit students into research labs as young summer assistants. They are very closely supervised in research teams, and the most motivated students go on towards a doctoral degree.   

In arts, a similar research-team approach is only just emerging more widely. So far, students have been able to apply to become doctoral researchers with a ready-made research topic. In this case, the department has had to find a professor to supervise them, and the professor's own research line has not necessarily benefitted from this supervision. 

The students at both schools are excellent—smart, thoughtful, and inventive. The openness of the art students is exemplary, as they boldly put their work on display in various exhibitions. I was also able to participate in two ceramics exhibitions in Arabia.

The working title of the book is a question asked by a fifth-grade girl: what if a human had the brain of a chicken?

Riitta Hari

What’s it like to walk in Riitta Hari's shoes?

Pretty easy these days. Since becoming an emerita, I’ve been visiting schools through Aalto Junior and the Young Academy Finland’s Meet a Researcher service. We've talked about the brain and mind based on questions sent in advance by the class. 

I’m currently outlining a short book based on these school visits, the working title of which is a question asked by a fifth-grade girl: what if a human had the brain of a chicken? This excellent question makes you laugh at first, but after a while you realise that it is about fundamental issues: the relationship between the brain and mind, the embodiment of thought, the interaction between the environment and the individual, and the evolution of the brain.

Many classes have also asked whether the brain can be transferred to a computer or a robot. In one fifth-grade class that asked this question, five eager boys were sitting on a couch in the front row, holding on to each other. When I said that I don’t think anyone would want to put their brain into a robot, all the boys raised their hands as if in agreement to inform that they certainly would because they wanted to stay alive forever.

Lately, some ninth-grade classes have expressed worries about how to learn better, whether brains can be stupid and why some students learn inferior to others. The transition to upper secondary school feels stressful. But in general, the classrooms have a very lively and enthusiastic atmosphere, and the teachers have things well under control.  

I used to write in the medical matrices that my hobbies were children, kites, and snow castles; nowadays, only life in solitude.

Riitta Hari

What do you think is the most essential aspect of cross-disciplinary collaboration?

This is one of my favourite topics, because I have been away from my home base (hospital) for a long time. Even in a multidisciplinary university, such as Aalto, high-quality research can be conducted solely within one discipline, and multidisciplinarity alone does not necessarily create added value. 

Interdisciplinary cooperation should only be sought when all parties want it and feel that they can benefit from it, not just for money or prestige. Unfortunately, all too often, cooperation is pursued for entirely selfish reasons to just further one's own research problem. 

However, for wicked problems, such as climate change or the functioning of the human mind, convergence research is needed, a concept that is still relatively unknown in Finland. In convergence research, problems are put in the same basket and the whole team with diverse research backgrounds pulls together. This deep integration and cross-pollination of disciplines can create considerable added value. Convergence research requires a change of attitude not only from researchers but also from organisations and funders. High-impact results can be achieved if the worldviews of the researchers involved are sufficiently close. Then, no one tends to think that something they do not understand must be something wonderful and profound. The learning process is long and communication skills are essential.

What do you do in your free time and why is it important to you?

I used to write in the medical matrices that my hobbies were children, kites, and snow castles; nowadays, only life in solitude.

Interview and text: Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne

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