Pondering the Monkey Mind: Neuroscientist-in-Training Ian Cochiolo (CA’23)
February 12, 2024
The months since Commencement have been busy for Ian Cochiolo (CA’23). In June, he wed classmate Elayne (Piquette CA’23), and in November he accepted a postbaccalaureate research fellowship in neuroscience through the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he studies visual perception in monkeys. But these few eventful months have only been the latest stages of a far greater journey — from atheism to the Catholic faith.
“Since high school, I thought I’d go into medicine,” says Mr. Cochiolo. To that end, he traveled far from his home in Clovis, California, to enroll at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh to study biochemistry. Having received a thoroughly secular education in high school, Mr. Cochiolo was surprised to find that the more science he studied in college, the less he was convinced that atheism — often considered the precondition for practicing science — was an adequate framework.
In particular, “I started to make distinctions between the physical phenomenon of light and color as it appears to us,” he says. Perception clearly involves both something perceived and something capable of perceiving. Was the latter truly nothing but atoms? Could rays and particles alone account for the subjective experience of color? Mr. Cochiolo began to have his doubts.
Fueling those doubts were his conversations with a high school friend, Lauro Platas (’22), who enrolled at Thomas Aquinas College when Mr. Cochiolo traversed the Atlantic. The pair called often during their year apart, and their discussions focused increasingly on science and religion. “In some indescribable way, God was entering into my life,” says Mr. Cochiolo.
Eventually, he faced an uncomfortable epiphany. “It hit me towards the end of my time at Edinburgh that I had to know if there was a God,” says Mr. Cochiolo. “And, for some reason, I knew in my heart that I would find out if I came to TAC.” The obvious problem, of course, was that the College was nearly half the globe away — and he was already pursuing another degree. But the question was too pressing: He pivoted and joined Mr. Platas in California the following year.
“I had to know if there was a God. And, for some reason, I knew in my heart that I would find out if I came to TAC.”
Mr. Cochiolo dove into his studies with the expectation that he would find an answer somewhere in the pages of the Great Books, but it was not that simple. “I assumed that, if there is a God, someone would give me an argument and I’d be logically convinced,” he remembers. But when he brought the question to then-Chaplain Rev. Paul Raftery, O.P., he received an unexpected response. “Fr. Paul looked at me and said, ‘Ian, there’s not an argument that’s going to prove it to you.’ That struck me.”
The liturgy did what logic could not. “One Sunday, Lauro ambushed me with an invitation to Mass,” laughs Mr. Cochiolo. “He said, ‘Just come once and see.’ So, I went — and I was blown away. Something important was happening that challenged all of my notions. I was confused but interested.” That interest kept him coming to Mass for the next few months, and somewhere in that time, faith awoke. “It dawned on me almost as if it were something that happened in the past,” recalls Mr. Cochiolo. He thought he would find God, but as it happens, God found him. He was baptized in the spring of 2020.
But God was not finished. Nurtured by the College’s integrated curriculum, Mr. Cochiolo found himself entering new and intriguing intellectual vistas. In particular, his interest in perception — which had animated his first doubts about materialism, and where psychology, physiology, and philosophy intersect — deepened. The more he studied, and the more he considered his future, the more he was drawn to the questions that only neuroscience could answer. When the opportunity to answer those questions arose late last year, he could not pass.
Somewhat to his surprise, although far from the College, the NIH has proven an intellectual home away from home. “Neuroscience is speculative in nature,” says Mr. Cochiolo. “The immediate end of our research is not to produce technology, but to understand.” Even so, it is unlike any speculating he did at the College. “I’m part philosopher, part computer programmer, part animal trainer, and part monkey neurosurgeon,” he laughs. “We’re studying certain regions in the monkey’s brain, with the hope that that will tell us how our brains are structured.”
Mr. Cochiolo has so far greatly enjoyed his work in neuroscience, which, he finds, complements and enriches his belief in the immortal soul. “We need more people who have been philosophically well-formed in the natural sciences,” he says. “That struck me reading Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity senior year at the College. I loved it, but what if Monod had been a Catholic? He could still do his material investigations, but he would have a much better way of interpreting what he was finding.”
As a research fellow in Maryland, and eventually through doctoral studies in neuroscience, Mr. Cochiolo will have ample opportunity both to investigate the material world and to see it in the light of the faith he found at Thomas Aquinas College.