Exploring human existence — Three days of discussions, freethinking and broadening horizons

August 02, 2016

What makes us human? This was the question discussed by 150 renowned scientists and PhD students from various different disciplines and from more than 30 countries at this year’s Summer School of the IMPRS NeuroCom Graduate School at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig.

Unlike other species, we as human beings are able to pass on our knowledge to future generations. Our cultural and technical progress would be unimaginable without our ability to use language. This year’s Summer School kicked off with a panel discussion which made it clear that our language is one characteristic that makes us human.

We know that other species, macaques for instance, also use single vocalization sounds to communicate. But humans have developed a complex system which they use to recombine single components of language according to specific rules again and again in order to express new content and complex issues.

The panel discussion therefore focussed on the question of which evolutionary step in the development of our language has been the crucial one from non-human to human primates.
Neuroscientist Angela D. Friederici from MPI CBS and primatologist Chris Petkov from the University of Newcastle discussed if this step is possibly due to the development of the perisylvian network, including the Broca's Area in the human brain.

‘What makes us human’—this question continued to feature in the lectures about artificial intelligence, consciousness or comparable psychology in the packed lecture hall.

Not just content-related but also in terms of methodology, the participants were able to gain practical and theoretical neuroscientific knowledge. In several workshops—be it about real-time fMRT or transcranial magnetic stimulation—there were many opportunities to bring themselves up to speed on the latest neuroscientific methods.

The event culminated in the award for the best scientific poster, where participants presented their current research. This year the winner was Liron Rosenkrantz from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. She was able to demonstrate that there is a link between the olfactory sense and autism. Ahmad Seif Kanaan, who examines the role of glutamate in Gilles de la Tourette patients, was awarded the prize for the best internal poster.

“For the debate ‘What makes us human’ from a language perspective it is especially interesting when in the course of our development we gain the ability to process complex linguistic relations which are thought to be the precursor of grammatical knowledge in adults”, explains IMPRS NeuroCom PhD student Marina Winkler, who studies babies’ processing of complex rules in artificial grammars. The Summer School provided an excellent interdisciplinary environment in which to discuss these questions.

“The lectures and workshops are a fundamental part of our Summer School”, adds IMPRS coordinator Veronika Krieghoff. “But just as important for enriching the participants perception are the social get-togethers with various well-known neuroscientists or professionals from other disciplines with whom they would otherwise not have the chance to chat to”.

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