The UiB Magazine interview: Kenneth Hugdahl

Statistically speaking, Professor of Psychology Kenneth Hugdahl should have been a drug addict. Instead, he became addicted to long jogs and research into auditory hallucinations.

Professor Kenneth Hugdahl, Department of Biological and Medical Psychology, University of Bergen (UiB).
ANALYSIS AND SELF-INSIGHT: “Research is like sport. You want to be the first and best. That is a driving force that you have to be honest enough to admit. I have an ego and have always believed in myself,” says Professor of Biological Psychology and Meltzer Research Fund Award winner Kenneth Hugdahl.
Thor Brødreskift

Main content

“During my entire career I have never been able to simply accept the current information when it comes to science. I have always searched deeper and deeper,” says Professor Kenneth Hugdahl of the Department of Biological and Medical Psychology at the University of Bergen (UiB).

He is known for his extensive collaborations with researchers within psychiatry, neurology and neurosurgery. In spring 2014 Professor Hugdahl received an honorary Meltzer Research Fund Award, which is only presented every fifth year to outstanding researchers at UiB.

However, the ultimate career highlight was in 2009, when the Swedish-born researcher was awarded the European Research Council's (ERC) Advanced Grant for his research into brain asymmetry relating to auditory hallucinations and schizophrenia.

“For me personally, the monetary grant in itself was not the most important thing. The best thing was to receive recognition that my thoughts about auditory hallucinations were new and accepted ideas. Receiving that recognition when I knew how tough the competition was – passing through the eye of the needle – was a huge thing,” Professor Hugdahl reflects. 

Voluntary guinea pig

As head of the Bergen fMRI Group, Professor Hugdahl and his team have developed a method in which test subjects have their brains imaged while at the same time being subjected to dichotic (or double) listening.

The latter takes place by both the right and left ears being subjected every third second to  isolated syllable sounds, a different sound in the right and left ear, but at the same time. The test subject must then identify these sounds. If you are healthy, you report the majority of correct answers from the right ear. If you have schizophrenia, you fail to report correct answers from the right ear. The MRI scan has shown different blood flows through the brain for those who are healthy and those who have a mental disorder. The hypothesis is that schizophrenia, and particularly auditory hallucinations, are a form of brain damage.

“I was myself the first person in Norway to have my brain examined with a functional MRI. I volunteered,” Professor Hugdahl says.

The jogging-mad figure dressed in black gesticulates whilst sitting in his impeccably tidy office at the Department of Biological and Medical Psychology. It is here, on the ninth floor of a building at Haukeland University Hospital, that Professor Hugdahl has his den, with a casting of his own brain, a ton of scientific articles in straight rows and a desk that puts the myth of researchers having chaotic offices to shame.

There is an enthusiasm surrounding Professor Hugdahl that is hard to resist. Reports from previous students and colleagues both at UiB and internationally indicate that it is not always smooth sailing. In previous times he was notorious for his brutal use of red correction pen. He now works digitally, however, he still demands maximum effort. This gives results.

“I am most proud of the work we have done in the past five-six years. We have discovered that auditory hallucinations are clearly associated with damage to the left temporal lobe where the nerve cells trigger something by themselves which makes the patients hear sounds and voices that cannot be heard by others. For a schizophrenia patient, something is triggered at nerve cell level. However, that is where our knowledge currently stops. We do not know what makes the patients hear sounds or whether it is, for example, a genetic programming error.”

What questions would you like to see answered?

“I only have three years left before I retire and only have one question left: Understanding auditory hallucinations. How do they occur in the brain? Why do they occur in the brain? What should we do with them?”

Will you find the answer before you retire?

“No, I don't think so I believe we will advance a little further in terms of our understanding. But, finding new treatment programmes will take longer. Even the basic discovery for the schizophrenia medicines we have today is 50 years old! There has been a quantitative improvement where we have added to what we already have. However, a qualitative improvement is to create something completely new. That is what I want.”

Fitness fanatic

Hugdahl's quest to find answers makes him drive himself hard. He works into the evening and then at between 9 and 10 pm completes his regular seven kilometre jogging route, seven nights a week. After jogging, he then continues working. Previously, he kept going until two-three in the morning and was back at work again at eight in the morning. Now he usually turns in at around midnight.

“I cannot claim that I have a large social circle. I have pretty much no contact with old school friends,” says the professor.

Demanding, loyal, impatient. Professor Hugdahl agrees with these characteristics given to him by research partners and former students.

“The impatience is because I want to get things done,” he emphasises.

So you don't have a Friday beer to relax and unwind?

“No. I have never been out on Fridays drinking beer with friends, or refurbished sailboats. I have never had a hobby.”

However, Professor Hugdahl confesses to having a past as a golfer. He took both a course and private lessons when he moved to Bergen for a professorship in 1984. Six months later he threw away his clubs for good. His swing was hopeless. Professor Hugdahl chuckles a bit.

“Talk about impatience! But, if you cannot master the basic swing movement you can never play golf. It just becomes a joke. When it comes to things I am not able to master, I do not continue when it just becomes absurd,” says the neuroscientist

Professor Hugdahl does not discount that this is why he has had success. He is not the type of researcher who is so in love with his own ideas that he becomes bogged down.

“You have to give up ideas when it is proven that they are in fact not good enough. I probably have a lower threshold than many colleagues for giving up my ideas when they do not produce results.” 

Fearing the death of ideas

The brain expert believes that science is simple. It is all about having an idea. He himself gets his ideas when he is out jogging. He believes that anyone can have ideas. They are free. You do not need financial grants, a laboratory or anything at all. However, research requires funds and laboratories. The Meltzer Research Fund Award winner fears that researcher talents are lost in this development.

“Now there is too much of a focus on the research aspect. We are in the process of forgetting the ideas. To receive a research grant it will soon be more important that I can set up a list with a number of researchers I will collaborate with and that is the size of a small Norwegian town, rather than there being any good ideas in the project I am seeking a grant for,” scoffs Professor Hugdahl.

“We have become so focussed on the importance of networks and large researcher groups. It blinds us. How big were the networks and collaborative groups that Einstein and Darwin had? Or Newton? The most important discoveries in history come from the thought process. It is true that the world is different now, but there is a political bias. We overestimate the belief in research and underestimate the belief in science.”

Strict discipline

That Professor Hugdahl would become a neuroscientist was not something that was on the cards.

“I was adopted. Statistically speaking, I should have been a drug addict rather than a professor,” the researcher analyses half-ironically.

As the child of a single mother he was placed in a foster home when he was five months old, but was, however, not adopted by foster parents until he was almost a teenager. His foster family had no education and Hugdahl believes that he would not have had any either if it had not been for the militant gym teacher who insisted on calling him by his birth name of Karlsson even though he had used the name Hugdahl even before he had been formally adopted. The gym teacher’s lack of respect made Hugdahl allergic to arrogance. This, together with his adoptive father’s mantra that knowledge was the way out of the working class, lit a spark in him.

“I learnt to master things early. You have to take charge of life yourself. Nobody can do that for you. In the sixth grade I had a fantastic teacher and made a decision. I was going to be the best at school. And I was.”

Professor Hugdahl used the same method when he decided to stop smoking 30 cigarettes a day. Sudden stop. That very day. The ex-hippy quotes Nike:

“Just do it.”

Do you mean that you have to pull yourself together?

Professor Hugdahl vigorously shakes his head.

“Absolutely not!!! I am actually quite soft. I have none of that “pull yourself together and do something with your life” attitude. Quite the opposite: I give to beggars on the street.”

This generosity is perhaps a type of repayment. He still cannot understand that UiB awarded a professorship to a 36 year old, which was unusual at that time, and that even those with the highest titles treated him like an equal. The elitism he experienced in his home country was absent.

His wife Märit is credited for the couple seizing the chance and moving to Bergen. She had read in the magazine Alt om Mat (literally “Everything about Food”) that Bergen had such good, fresh fish.

The rain then?

“It has never worried me. I operate just as well in the rain as in the sun. Bergen and UiB were love at first sight. It is a fantastic place.”

Is it possible for a researcher to surrender himself to love?

“A researcher is a completely normal person. A researcher has love, anger, jealousy, gluttony...,” answers Professor Hugdahl before he bursts into laughter and gleefully adds:

“All of the seven deadly sins.”