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The Brain

Prof. Dr. Wolf Singer

HENN Akademie, September 21, 2010

The architecture of our brain is functional. All functions, which we can observe in ourselves, including the ultimate mental functions – having feelings, planning the future, knowledge about ourselves – are based on the dynamic that develops in the highly dense neuronal networks.

At the same time, the dynamic processes influence the development of the architecture: the brain is a self-organising system. In principle, a distinction is made here between two processes. The one takes place over the long periods of evolution and concerns the “long distance connections”, which are genetically predisposed and essentially the same in all humans. They connect the 120 areas of the cerebral cortex, which in each case discharge very specific tasks to form a comprehensive network. This “coarse architecture” bears testimony to a fundamental adjustment to the surrounding world and embodies the knowledge of evolution through the configuration of the world. We continuously interpret the world on the basis of this knowledge, the existence of which is unknown to us. On the other hand, within these areas at “local level”, any interlinking largely depends on individual experience. The development of this “fine architecture” takes place predominantly during the first years of life.

A cluster of areas deals with the processing of visual information, others with acoustic information whilst others are responsible for the perception of space, for the motor function or planning the future. The key to the functionality of the brain lies in the question of how these local processing areas are globally interlinked by “remote connections”. The optimized architecture of the brain is a small-world network, which also includes social networks, flight route networks or the Internet. It optimises the possibility of getting from one point to another using the shortest route, with as few “changes” as possible.

The question of networking is therefore decisive, because there is no centre in the brain, where perception is uniform, where decisions are made and actions co-ordinated. Even our “ego” is in no way based on a central agency in the brain. However, the brain is target-orientated and has the task of keeping the organism alive and controlling it.  Our intuition tells us that a centre is needed for this. However, in a more complex system, such as the brain, this is not the case.

This results in the so-called binding problem; during visual perception it consists in putting the incoming visual information into order according to specific characteristic categories and then to combine those which form part of an item. The individual neuron only reacts more or less strongly to a specific stimulus. This characteristic information must therefore be linked to a further piece of information that shows which neurons have just co-operated. This co-ordination takes place over time; it is produced by synchronous rhythmic discharges and is linked to previous knowledge of evolution and early imprinting. In this way in self-organisation, the functional architecture of the brain forms patterns of specific meaning over space and time.

By analogy we can be challenged to consider the architecture of buildings as functional architecture, in other words, conceive these together with the patterns of communication and the common establishment of new meanings over space and time.

Prof. Dr. Wolf Singer was director of the Max-Planck Institute for Cerebral Research in Frankfurt/Main and founding director of the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies (FIAS) and the Ernst Strüngmann Institute for Cerebral Research (ESI). His main focus of research is on the neuronal principles of cognitive functions.

Wolf Singer
Prof. Dr.