Computational Theory Sheds Light on Brain Functioning

Bringing together computer science and neuroscience

The research of Dr. David Heeger, of New York University, spans an interdisciplinary cross-section of engineering, psychology, mathematics, computer science, and neuroscience. By combining computational theory with the ability to measure brain activity, he and his team are able to quantitatively investigate the relationship between the brain and human behavior. Much like the algorithms that allow computers to process, the neurons in our brains perform computations, which underlies everything that we do, and how we do it. Therefore, computational theory has given scientists a powerful approach for understanding how the brain supports its many functions. Computational theory is also a powerful approach for understanding psychiatric illnesses, neurological diseases, and developmental disorders, all of which can be characterized as dysfunctions of neural computations. Dr. Heeger's research is likely to provide insight about Autism, about vision and visual awareness, as well as continued development of computational models of brain function and dysfunction.

As a vocal critic of established paradigms, Dr. Heeger has pioneered new directions for the fields he works in. His innovation has been recognized by being elected into the National Academy of Sciences nearly a decade younger than average and by the David Marr Prize in computer vision, among other awards. His varied projects are made possible by an established track record of international and interdisciplinary collaborations; Dr. Heeger has collaborated with over 30 leaders in their respective fields at academic institutions all over the world, including Cambridge, Oxford, Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon University, and more. In short, through the creative weaving of psychology, neuroscience, engineering, and computation science, Dr. Heeger is beginning to understand the various computations brain circuits are able to perform.

Current research includes:

  • Autism: Dr. Heeger is testing the idea that generic, brain-wide circuit malfunctions are at the root of autism. Using a combination of behavioral experiments and functional brain imaging experiments with people, and electrophysiology experiments in mouse models of autism, he and his team have found that brain activity is less reliable in autism. Dr. Heeger's research may lead to the development of therapies for core and secondary symptoms of autism.

  • Neuroimaging: Dr. Heeger uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to quantitatively investigate the relationship between brain and behavior. He and his team use fMRI, MEG, and EEG to measure the timing and amplitude of brain activity, for testing computational theories of the neural processing underlying cognition and perception. Dr. Heeger's research sheds light upon visual awareness, visual pattern detection/discrimination, visual motion perception, stereo depth perception, attention, working memory, the control of eye and hand movements, and neural processing of complex audio-visual and emotional experiences (movies, music, narrative).

  • Computational Neuroscience: A variety of anatomical, physiological, and behavioral evidence suggests that the brain performs computations using modules that are repeated across species, brain areas, and modalities. Dr. Heeger's research is elucidating the canonical computational principles of brain function.


Dr. Heeger earned his B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania and Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Pennsylvania. He then completed his Postdoctoral fellowship at the MIT Media Lab. His professional career has included positions as a research scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, an Assistant Professor at Stanford University, and currently a professorship at New York University. He has published over 100 journal papers and holds three US patents.

Dr. Heeger's father, Alan Heeger, is a physicist who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry; he and his colleagues discovered and invented plastics that conduct electricity. With his father's influence and his own interest in the sciences, Dr. Heeger always expected to be a scientist. While an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, he started off as a physics major but realized sometime in his junior year that physics was not for him. While searching for a new focus, one of Dr. Heeger's professors offered him some advice, "David, when I was a kid like you are now, physics was the thing to do. But if I were in your shoes, I'd go across the street and work for my wife." His wife, was a computer scientist running a lab that did robotics and computer vision research. When Dr. Heeger met her, she described several different projects, one of them being a collaboration with a colleague in the psychology department, developing a computational theory to explain results from a perceptual psychology experiment. He picked that one. Shortly after that, he found himself auditing a seminar in which he read and discussed the book "Vision" by David Marr; Dr. Heeger was hooked! Since then, Dr. Heeger has been an interdisciplinary scientist doing research on image processing, computer vision, computer graphics, computational neuroscience, perceptual psychology, sensory neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, autism, and data science. This interdisciplinary approach leads him to real-world applications of his research.

In his free time, aside from research, Dr. Heeger is an avid skier. Since learning to ski in Zermatt, Switzerland at the age of seven, he has continued to chase his passion on slopes all over the world. He owns a vacation home in Park City, Utah. His favorite ski resorts are Park City Mountain, Silverton Mountain, Alta, Snowbird, and Jackson Hole.


In the News

David Heeger


Your Brain on Skis

Ski Magazine


Silver Professorship, New York University, 2014

National Academy of Sciences, 2013

Troland Research Award in psychology, National Academy of Sciences, 2002

David Marr Prize in computer vision, 1987


U.S. Patent No. 5,949,055: "Method for embedding signals in a color image".

Fleet DJ, Heeger DJ, Cass T, Hecht DL. Issued Sep 7, 1999.

U.S. Patent No. 5,804,836: "Smart polymer image processor".

Heeger AJ, Heeger DJ, Langan JD. Issued Sep 8, 1998.

U.S. Patent No. 4,980,762: "Method and apparatus for image processing to obtain three dimensional motion and depth".

Heeger DJ & Jepson AD. Issued Dec 25, 1990.