SCIENCE

The Incredible True Tale Of "The Queen Of Neuroscience" And Her Nobel Prize

02/19/2015 12:35 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2015
Pascal Le Segretain via Getty Images

A little girl raised on a faraway island. Her town is small, deeply religious. Dancing is forbidden; family members speak of spirits, and superstitions abound. Her parents are not well-off, do not attend university.

But her mother, who once dreamed of being a doctor, wants better for her daughter. She insists the girl study hard. She reads her fairy tales in which heroes overcome poverty with their smarts. “We are born naked, and we're going to die naked, so don't care about material things,” she tells her daughter. Instead, follow your passion.

Flash-forward forty years. The little girl has become "the queen of neuroscience." With a beaming smile, May-Britt Moser rose to accept the Nobel Prize in physiology. Her work helped solve a problem “that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries,” the Nobel committee wrote, and she was the only woman to receive a Nobel Prize in the sciences in 2014.

And like most great fairy tales, there was a love story. Moser attended high-school with her husband-to-be, Edvard, but they barely knew each other. By chance, they chose the same university; they met again, married as undergraduates, and together created first a family, then a research lab.

When May-Britt rose to receive her Nobel, Edvard also stood. He had won too.

“We have a common project and a common goal,” Edvard Moser told the New York Times. “We both intensely burn for it. And we depend on each other for succeeding.”

maybritt moser

Both May-Britt and Edvard were raised on islands in Norway’s “Bible belt.” Their prize-winning work was the discovery of so-called grid cells that make up “the GPS of the brain,” the internal mapping and navigation system that helps animals identify where they are and where they have been. (To learn more, see this story or this lecture.)

I spoke with May-Britt Moser for Sophia, a HuffPost project to collect life lessons from fascinating people. She shared practical wisdom about battling stress and getting better sleep, about parenting, influential books, and a wonderful story about the best gift she’s ever received.

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Before I ask about your life, is there any new research that you’re particularly excited about?

We published something really interesting about how odor acts as a retrieval cue for memories.

Of course, everyone knows that there are some odors that send you directly back to memories of your childhood -- odors from Christmas time and so forth. And you have Marcel Proust with his beautiful poems linking odors and memories.

We were able to demonstrate this in the lab. We set up a task where we taught rats that if they smell chocolate, they should go to one position, and if they smell banana, they should go to a different position. So you’re talking about odor memories and space at the same time. Then we went into the brain and tried to determine, what happens in the brain when the animal is learning these associations?

We were able to show that a part of the brain -- not the part that contains the grid cells, but its sister, the lateral entorhinal cortex -- receives odor information and then sends this information to the hippocampus [a part of the brain that plays a critical role in memory formation]. When they start to oscillate together at a certain range, the lateral entorhinal cortex is teaching the hippocampus about this odor.

Later, when the rat would sniff chocolate, for example, a spatial map was expressed in her hippocampus that sent her to the right position.

In Pixar's "Ratatouille," a food critic experiences "the Proustian effect," in which an odor and taste call to mind a vivid memory.

Have you found any practical day-to-day benefits from research related to your work?

One paper that’s been especially useful is by Bruce McEwen. It showed that, if you stress animals, then they lose synapses, especially in the hippocampus.

It made me so aware of being too stressed, because I know that my brain doesn't work as well. I’ve trained myself to find time to exercise relaxation of the body. I have these programs, I just listen to the instructions, and they’re simple. Sometimes you just hold your hand tight and keep your breath -- you hold it, hold it, feel all the tension, and then relax.

You concentrate on how your body feels when you really are tense, and then when you relax. You really learn about your body in that regard. Later, at meetings and all those things, I use this technique to relax and try to be an adult human in tough discussions. [Laughter]

How about all of the memory-related research you’re involved with?

I don't think that I use what I've learned enough. I should probably use it more. I tried it once because I had to teach a class in psychology and I wanted to test myself. I used spatial memory and some other cues to check if I could learn the names of these students in one go. I told them, I want to learn your names now, and next time we meet I will show off that I did.

And I was successful. I remembered where they sat, and then I put types on them -- you remind me about this and that. Then I could create this mental map, and then I could name them.

That was a test for myself, and now I know it works. But of course I also wanted to impress the students. [Laughter]

Moser's Nobel dress featured a neuron pattern based on the cells she helped discover.

How do you sleep? Do you have any tricks or tips for sleeping better?

My frontal lobe doesn't function well. When I'm out with friends, I typically have a cup of coffee, and that's not good for my sleep. And yet I’ll do it again, night after night -- “Oh why did I have that cup of coffee?" I can't stop it because I love it.

So I was talking about this with Mark Bear at MIT. We were discussing how difficult it is to get a good sleeping pattern when you're traveling a lot, especially across time zones. He suggested I try this app on my iPhone called Sleep Cycle. It wakes you up while you are up in REM sleep, because if you have deep sleep and you wake up, then you feel stressed; if you wake up when you are in REM, you feel so good.

So I tried it, and it's wonderful. I can see when I fell to sleep, and understand the quality of my sleep. And as a result I relax more about my sleep.

What’s the most memorable gift you’ve ever received?

There were a lot of things that made me decide to marry Edvard. But there was one gift in particular that was very special.

He had bought this beautiful big umbrella, it was huge. There was this card with it which said, "You have to open it." I was so confused. Why did I get an umbrella, and why do I have to open it?

So I opened it above my head, and it rained down small beautiful pieces of paper with little poems on about me. How fantastic I was. And I was just -- what?! It was such a shock for me. And I was, you know, I was also so young. I had no self-confidence whatsoever. To get these small poems, and so many, and it was just raining from the umbrella. I was… ooooh.

notes umbrella

Is there anything your parents did for you that many parents don’t do that had a lasting impact?

I was trained to be very tough. My mom told me I shouldn't cry, I shouldn't be afraid of anything. Then, as a young girl, I became extremely afraid of dogs, very suddenly. My mom was so angry at me. "How can they do this to you?" she said. "This is horrible, horrible."

At some point my dad came, and he wasn't angry. He said, "She needs a dog of her own." They got me the most beautiful, beautiful dog. And of course I haven't ever been afraid of dogs since that. I had this dog for eight years, and he was the most lovely animal. It was another beautiful gift. My dad had tried to understand the emotions I had, not just to support them but to help me achieve a different kind of behavior.

Anything else?

I also think about how my mother would read fairy tales for me. She was very eager not to tell me bad stories, but to give me hope and give me strength. I had this idea that I could do anything. Even though my parents didn't attend university themselves, my mom especially wanted to. There were always these dreams about becoming a doctor, to know a lot.

When I think back, that has been important for me in science. My mom said to me, we are born naked, and we're going to die naked, so don't care about material things, but about passion and that you want to do something. In the fairy tales, you had these poor people who used their brains to do things that other people couldn't do. That was an extremely important lesson for me.

May-Britt Moser recalls her reaction to the Nobel news. "Why are you calling me?"

Your children are 19 and 23. Any advice about raising teenagers that you would share?

What is important is to give your children an environment where they can develop themselves, but still say, ‘These are the boundaries. You can do this, but not this.’

Then you have the fights -- and those are important fights. They let your child say, ‘I'm an individual, and you can't control me.’ Then we as parents, we have to say, ‘Yeah, but...’ We tried to explain things in a detailed way. They will oppose it at first, but after some weeks, they often say, ‘Okay, we understand.’

You have talked about being singularly focused on your scientific endeavors. Do you worry about work-life balance? Or is your professional work of such great interest that the balance comes naturally?

I think that is exactly the idea. I've always been extremely curious; to understand things, to know more about things, that feels so good. If you feel good about something, you do more of it, then you are addicted.

How have you tried to instill this in your children?

It's so extremely important for me to respect our children, and that means respecting that they are individuals, they have their own emotional life, their own ideas.

But I told them, all I want you to do is to keep doors open. You are still so young. Work hard to keep your doors open -- I don't care which door you want to go into eventually, we will support you. If they were lazy at school, they would close all the doors and then be forced to go onto one path. And I can't -- that is so painful for me, to see people closing doors. Thankfully they work hard, and they have passion for something.

My oldest daughter, she has gone from molecular biology and ended up in medicine. She loves it so much. And we haven't pushed her. We have just told her, if you like this, please do it.

She is now working in a hospital for elderly people. I was so pleased that she did that. I told her, when you work with people that are dependent on you, you have to remember that they are still people. Because if you work with demented people, and they don't respond to you, they do awkward things, they can't find their way, you sometimes can come into this habit of not treating them as people. And that's so awful.

She came home from work one day, and she said, "Mom, I met this person who was so sick that he couldn't speak. We were sitting together and looking at photos, his own photos. And we were both crying." And, you know, when your children tell you about their relation to patients in the hospital, and you see them do such beautiful work, I was just... wow. This is my child. Can you believe it?

#MatthewHubble #MayBrittMoser #NobelLaureate2014 #1895MarieCurie #SubrinaO

A photo posted by Subrina Oliver (@subrinao) on

What books have made a lasting impression on you?

In Norway, we have three languages. One is Lappish, and that we don't understand if we are not raised with Lappish or learn it at school. Then we have the one that we inherited from Denmark, more German. And then we have the one that is more related to Old Norse and the Viking language. It's a constructed language, and to read poems in this language, that is enchanting.

Of course, Henrik Ibsen is fantastic. I don't know if you've read any Ibsen. He's so beautiful that it's painful.

Then the books by Isabel Allende. When Edvard and I started to travel, I really fell in love with South America and the South American people, and when I read, for example, "The House of Spirits," I felt like I was sent back to South America. It also sent me back to my childhood. I'm from the Bible belt in Norway; people in my family were superstitious and talked regularly about spirits. And it featured such strong women. So I really fell in love with Isabel Allende's work.

Another is by Toni Morrison called “The Bluest Eye.” She is the greatest author with so many wonderful books; this one is just so thin and so simple. It's about an African-American girl whose father treated her in a terrible way, all these awful things happen in her life. It was so painful for me to read. But she had this big hope, and she prayed, "Dear God, can I get blue eyes?" There was a magical appeal of blue eyes; if she could get blue eyes, then her life would change, she would be happy.

It's almost like the fairy tales my mother read. You have these dreams, and they're crazy dreams. Of course this girl can't get blue eyes. But she had the dream. And through this dream, she could have hope, and live on.

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Transcription services by Tigerfish; now offering transcripts in two-hours guaranteed. Interview text has been edited and condensed.

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