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
Some aspects of this current metaphoric – the network, the
simulation, the breakdown, the assemblage, the machinist –
will be the subject of the dialogues.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Ist jemand daheim?
Ist das Gehirn ein Computer?