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23th of November 2013

Auditorium in the Kollegiengebäude I
at the University of Freiburg,
Platz der Universität 3
Entrance free. Continuous admission.





On Interfaces, Devices, Brain Images

In a one-day experimental observation station five members of the BrainLinks-BrainTools cluster of excellence and five researchers from other disciplines present a subject of their interest while at the same time making themselves available to be the object of this experiment. The ten researchers, who have never met, join up for a public film shooting for the pilot broadcast of the TV documentary series “Cerebromatics, now and then” (premiere: September 2014).
Along with video recordings the audience can follow live in the viewing room, it is also possible to take part as an extra. Other material to feature includes documents with statements and songs by the scientists, visual and film material as well as the first trailer for the documentary series.

Cerebromatics is the language of scientific futurology, a term invented by the Polish author, futurologist, and theorist of science Stanislaw Lem. With this term he predicted a cognitive counterpart to prosthetics – the technological manipulation of the neuronal brain structure.
The five dialogue partners discuss the metaphors and the problematic of the interface between the organism and technology in the brain.

From the outset the neurosciences have also entailed a history of images about the brain, of metaphors for the brain. The invisible, the mental qualities, are inscribed into these images and thus made easier to manage scientifically. Of course images of the brain are always dependent on the media technologies of the time and reflect the prevailing fascinations; at times the brain has been described variously as a loom, a jellyfish, an inner cosmos, and a computer. Anatomical-morphological imagery such as that of the jellyfish seem curious today and not particularly expedient for gaining a better understanding. But in the case of more functional tools such as graphs, charts, and diagrams one can see how relatively sparse information and meager signs are transformed into recognized scientific images. While the resulting models and metaphors make a cerebral localization possible, at the same time they also foster the creation of myths and harbor the danger of obfuscation.
The advent of imaging procedures in the 1990s has given new impetus to this production of images: It flashes! It sparks! It thinks! Ever since, the computer has basically ceased to be used as a metaphor for the brain, giving way to a vision of a self-organizing, dynamic system.
Some aspects of this current metaphoric – the network, the simulation, the breakdown, the assemblage, the machinist – will be the subject of the dialogues.

Foto: M.Korbel

The brain is a seminal scientific object, for it allows both experiments and hypotheses in basic research as well as close-to-the-market product developments. Purportedly, the money currently flowing into this research branch is comparable to the funds made available to pursue Kennedy’s vision of landing on the moon.
The twitching frog legs of Luigi Galvani two hundred years ago mark the begin of modern neurobiology; it is only over the last 20 years that imaging methods have made it possible to view dynamic changes taking place in the brain. Despite this relatively short history, the brain has become an accumulation apparatus for signs, technologies, and meanings, establishing itself as a representational space in which the big questions may be posed and discussed: Do we have a free will, a soul, or is there a machinist, a metronome at work in us? How much technology can we actually stand? Are we being thought? Is self-optimization a childhood dream?
Many are already asking if neuroscience is staking a claim to be the new social and behavioral science, if it can furnish eschatological ‘last details’, if not here a new universal discipline is emerging – and if the cerebral images will become our new images of self and humanity.

Despite the diversity of the statements made when answering questions about the world and the specialist disciplines generated by research on the brain, the language of brain research has remained rather plain and technicistic-popular: it is networked, wired up, fed back and controlled, transmitted, sparked, booted, charged, and stored. The natural sciences suffer from forgetfulness towards language and it is not exactly helpful that in the course of their research process they adhere to a rather simple division of labor: We produce hard facts and knowledge and it is up to cultural studies and the humanities to interpret, provide the therapy, and consume. Indeed, one could just justifiably claim that currently it is precisely the humanities, which are formulating a demystification program as a means to countering the production of symbols and an overload of meanings in the natural sciences, in particular in the neurosciences.

At the interfaces between the brain and technological devices, information gathered from the language of the nerve cells is translated into that of the computer and vice versa. This physical interface, a construct of synthetic materials and metal that comes into contact with the brain, is required to receive the most detailed signals as possible without damaging the body. If it were possible to understand the data stream at this point, in future humans could directly operate and control machines with their brain through corresponding implants. Moreover, abnormal patterns could be detected in the brain signals, for example the first signs of an oncoming epileptic seizure. Thus, the implant would not only be a receiver but also a sender, and through specific stimulations autonomously repel the looming seizure.
Two difficulties concerning adapters will be discussed in the five dialogues: Those in the brain itself are largely unexplored, while those between the humanities and the natural sciences assert themselves despite our knowing better.

The dialogues
6 pm, dialogue 1: system breakdowns

Not every disease of the nervous system has to be chronic: Often, the brain can either cure the disease itself or the tasks of one affected brain area can be taken over by other brain areas. Cornelius Weiller, chief of neurology at the university medical center Freiburg, researches possibilities of rehabilitation, reorganization, and self-healing mechanisms of the brain, especially in the aftermath of a stroke. Weiller conducts his research by examining patients with the most modern imaging methods, which allows him to watch the brain in its ‘reconstruction’ during the rehabilitation process. So far, he mostly researches specific exercises. In the future, however, he also aims at developing neurotechnological implants, which will facilitate the brain’s self-healing process as ‘temporary trainers’.

Sociologist Dirk Baecker teaches Cultural Theory and Analysis at Zeppelin University Friedrichshafen. After having worked in the areas of Economic Sociology, Organizational Research, and Cultural Theory, he now explores the field of Neurosociology. He works on the thesis that a theory of the neuronal system under the condition of a plural of brains is possible only if one places, in line with Immanuel Kant, unconditionality of categorical subjects, hypothetical sets, and disjunct systems as the basic social feature of the brain.

7 pm, dialogue 2: networks and assemblies
Arvind Kumar seeks to understand how the brain represents and processes information and causes that lead to brain diseases. The tools he uses in his work are, however, not scalpel and microscope but mathematical equations and high-performance computers. Before dedicating himself to brain research, Kumar studied electrical engineering, and it is from this background that his particular approach stems: He looks at the brain as a dynamical system whose many adjustable components decide whether this system functions faultlessly or loses its balance through the smallest changes. Kumar synthesizes experimental data to reconstruct individual brain areas in a computer simulation, on the basis of which he can examine the characteristics of nerve cells and networks interactions to unveil mechanisms underlying brain function and dysfunction.

It is not us, but a certain condition of us who knows, Heinrich von Kleist wrote once (“Von der allmählichen Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” Heinrich von Kleist, 1805). How do we enter into this condition? For example when we deliver a speech? And if it is not us who know, does that mean that it is a constellation of people, spaces, times, media, and machines who knows? What kind of modes of participation are brought into being by these constellations of knowledge? Sibylle Peters discusses these questions in the course of experiments between theater, science, and public engagement. She chairs the research theater Hamburg, where children, artists, and scientists do research together. She worked with the performance collective ‘geheimagentur’ and has cofounded the first artistic-scientific postgraduate program in Germany, titled “Assemblies and Participation: Urban Publics and Performance”.

8 pm, dialogue 3: the implant
The functional neurosurgeon Volker A. Coenen places electrodes and wires in the brain in order to bring relief to patients for whom medication and other treatments have failed. Moreover, Coenen has been able to achieve successes through electric stimulators in a domain usually reserved for psychiatrists: Even severe forms of depression can be treated through implants that permanently deliver electrical stimuli. For many brain diseases it has not yet been discovered what causes them and what the exact functions of the implants are. In these cases, the treatment and research, as Coenen conducts it, team up and increase our knowledge both on the scientific and the medical side.

Cornelius Borck is head of the Institute for the History of Medicine and Sciences at Lübeck University. After studies in Philosophy and Medicine, Borck worked in experimental brain research before he started to be interested in the question of how brain research conceives its objects and models. Machines and media that not only function as instruments in research but also structure research questions have a special role with this regard. Thus we conceive of ourselves as reflected by our machines. Nowadays this includes mainly visualization techniques, through which we hope to gain knowledge on our thoughts and feelings by observing brain activity. In this process, the fascinating graphic images from inside our heads have become agents of our reality, while their development is reciprocally inscribed with our culture’s specific questions.

9 pm, dialogue 4: prosthetics
The robots of computer scientist Wolfram Burgard have already independently maneuvered through pedestrian areas, and an all-terrain vehicle will soon embark on a journey to the summits of the Black Forest. Within the cluster of excellence he works on developing assisting machinery and robots that will help paralyzed people in their daily life. Reading brain signals through a brain-machine-interface is just one side of the coin. Nerve cell commands need to be translated into movement for robots to function reliably. Burgard counts on his creations’ artificial intelligence as a means for their orientation and the planning of their actions. The decisive factor with this regard is that the data stream from the brain can be increasingly smaller as the robot system itself increases to take on planning.

Over the last years Karin Harrasser has been studying the cultural history and history of technology of prosthetics. Although we are already living in close cooperation with machines of all sorts, we only have a limited repertoire of images, stories, and concepts to conceive of our living (and dying) together with them. This is crucial due to the fact that the possibility of the technical extension and perfection is both connected with health policy and economic questions. Classical questions Karin Harrasser is interested in concern definitions of good life, the right to imperfection, and justice of resources. Some post-classical questions concern models of co-agency with machines, parahumanity, and the expansion of physics to pataphysics: the invention of sciences of the singular.

10 pm, dialogue 5: simulation
To simulate brain functions and, thereby, to better understand the human brain – Ad Aertsen is one of the co-founders of this scientific approach. From his background in physics and biology, he considers the theoretical analysis by means of mathematical descriptions and the associated possibility of creating computer models an essential counterpart to experimental brain research. Only with both approaches in a concerted effort and in ongoing exchange, Aertsen opines, the development of a truly convincing experiment-based theory of the brain is feasible. He considers the development of such theory a precondition for designing reliably functioning interfaces between the brain and technical devices that receive their commands directly from nerve cell activity patterns and/or return their commands back into the brain.

Knowledge gained from computer simulations, which emerges from computer-based imitations of dynamic systems is an ecological, medical, economical, and technical method that has a strong effect on our daily life. Martin Warnke is professor for computer-based cultural studies and, before teaching at Leuphana University, worked as a physicist at Hamburg University. Turning from there to cultural studies, he brings the expertise and methodology of hard sciences to the field of cultural studies oriented information technology. He combines a disposition for exactness with a fascination with contradictions. He builds software system, which make visual and preverbal perception communicable via information technology.
Together with Prof. Dr. Claus Pias, he heads the DFG-research-group “Media Cultures of Computer Simulation”. In addition, he is deputy director of the Institute for Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University where he also teaches inside the Faculty of Cultural Studies. He also coordinates and works in several research projects: “Relations in Space—Visualizing Topographical Small Structures”, “Hybrid Publishing”, and “Meta-Image II”. Digital media are one of his main research areas at Leuphana University.

With additional installations at the viewing sites by Tonio Ball (doctor and neuroscientist), Ulrich Egert (neurobiologist and biomicro technologist), Gunnar Grah (behavioral biologist and science communicator), Oliver Müller (philosopher and ethicist), Stefan Rotter (mathematician and neurotheorist), and Maximilian Haas (cultural theorist and dramaturge from Berlin).

The cluster of excellence BrainLinks-BrainTools at the University of Freiburg is an amalgamation of researchers pursuing a shared goal but taking different paths and employing a variety of methods. The Freiburg cluster undertakes experimental foundation research, implants devices in the brain in invasive procedures, works on therapeutic scenarios, researches for this on mice, and comes up with abstract and elegant formulas. The activity of the brain is described mathematically in as broad a manner as possible; the electrical clangor of billions of nerve cells is listened to; electrodes are constructed which may be compatibly embedded in tissue; tiny generators are built capable of generating electricity from body warmth; and robots are knocked into shape so that they can do the housework simply by obeying our thoughts.


Ist jemand daheim?

Ist das Gehirn ein Computer?