Max Planck Research Group Neural Mechanisms of Human Communication

Human Communication

Although it seems easy, communicating with another person is an extremely difficult and complex task. In a conversation between two people, there is a continuous stream of dynamic information from several sensory modalities. Embedded into this continuous stream there is information which is important for successful interaction with others; this stream contains not only information about what is said, but also about the identity, character, social status or emotion of the speaker. The task of communication is made even more complex by the need to produce and recognize signals and their underlying meaning online, i.e., without much delay. It is fascinating that our brain can do all this given the sheer speed of communication e.g. the rapidly changing face movements and associated speech sounds. Currently it is impossible to build devices that can communicate as we do. The best computer programs developed to recognize speech or identify people are still far away from the capabilities of our brains.

Neural Mechanisms

The question is: How does the brain accomplish fast and robust communication? One way of finding out is to observe the brain and infer what neural mechanisms are used. To do this we perform experiments using a broad methodological approach (e.g. functional and structural MRI, MEG, tDCS, eye-tracking) and advanced analysis techniques. Our research involves different participant groups, i.e. healthy controls, as well as people with selective developmental or acquired deficits (developmental dyslexia, autism spectrum disorders, phonagnosia, and developmental prosopagnosia). In addition we have recently started to use the experimental findings on neural mechanisms to motivate computational models of human communication.

Current Projects

Currently, our work focuses on three aspects of auditory and face-to-face communication:

i. Speech recognition: How do we understand what somebody is saying?

ii. Person recognition: How do we recognize and identify others?

iii. How does information from different sensory modalities interact during face-to-face communication?


Selected Publications:

Speech Recognition

Begona Diaz, Florian Hintz, Stefan J. Kiebel, and Katharina von Kriegstein, "Dysfunction of the auditory thalamus in developmental dyslexia," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109 (34), 13841-13846 (2012).
Burak Yildiz, Katharina von Kriegstein, and Stefan J. Kiebel, "From birdsong to human speech recognition: Bayesian inference on a hierarchy of nonlinear dynamical systems," PLoS Computational Biology 9 (9), e1003219 (2013).
von Kriegstein, K.; Smith, D. R.; Patterson, R. D.; Kiebel, S. J.; Griffiths, T. D.: How the human brain recognizes speech in the context of changing speakers. Journal of Neuroscience 30 (2), pp. 629 - 638 (2010)

Person Recognition

Roswandowitz, C.; Mathias, S. R.; Hintz, F.; Kreitewolf, J.; Schelinski, S.; von Kriegstein, K.: Two cases of selective developmental voice-recognition impairments. Current Biology 24 (19), pp. 2348 - 2353 (2014)
Blank, H.; Anwander, A.; von Kriegstein, K.: Direct structural connections between voice- and face-recognition areas. The Journal of Neuroscience 31 (36), pp. 12906 - 12915 (2011)
von Kriegstein, K.; Smith, D. R.; Patterson, R. D.; Ives, D. T.; Griffiths, T. D.: Neural representation of auditory size in the human voice and in sounds from other resonant sources. Curr Biol 17, pp. 1123 - 1128 (2007)

Face-to-face Communication

von Kriegstein, K.; Dogan, O.; Grüter, M.; Giraud, A. L.; Kell, C.; Grüter, T.; Kleinschmidt, A.; Kiebel, S. J.: Simulation of talking faces in the human brain improves auditory speech recognition. Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences 105 (18), pp. 6747 - 6752 (2008)
Riedel, P.; Ragert, P.; Schelinski, S.; Kiebel, S. J.; von Kriegstein, K.: Visual face-movement sensitive cortex is relevant for auditory-only speech recognition. Cortex 68, pp. 86 - 99 (2015)
Mayer, K. M.; Yildiz, I. B.; Macedonia, M.; von Kriegstein, K.: Visual and motor cortices differentially support the translation of foreign language words. Current Biology 25 (4), pp. 530 - 535 (2015)



Funding Sources

Max Planck Society
German Science Foundation (DFG)
European Research Council (ERC) (Consolidator Grant awarded in 2015)


Job opportunities

We will soon be recruiting further Postdocs and PhD students to join our ERC project SENSOCOM. We will advertise them on several mailing-lists (SPM, FSL, auditory list, etc.) as well as on twitter.


Association with PhD schools and Exchange Networks

Erasmus Mundus
Student exchange network in Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience

Berlin School of Mind and Brain
Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany

International Max Planck Research School
Neuroscience of Communication: Function, Structure, and Plasticity, Leipzig, Germany



Stefan Kiebel TU Dresden, Dresden, Germany
Tim Griffiths Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, London, UK
Roy Patterson University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
Etienne Gaudrain MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, UK
Martina and Thomas Grüter


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