Yearbook Reports of the Institute


  • Language and action are of different kinds

    2022 Zaccarella, Emiliano; Papitto, Giorgio; Trettenbrein, Patrick C.; Friederici, Angela D.
    From childhood, our active vocabulary grows to about 20,000 words, which we link together according to certain rules to form an infinite number of linguistic expressions. Since sentences are superficially just strings of words, similar to the sequence of motor actions, it has been argued that the processing of language and actions share a common cognitive lineage in the form of overlapping neural resources. Our work challenges this parallelism and instead demonstrates the independence of language and action processing.


  • Hair analysis shows: Meditation training reduces long-term stress

    2021 Engert, Veronika
    Mental training that promotes skills such as mindfulness, gratitude or compassion reduces the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol in hair. The amount of cortisol in hair provides information about how much a person is burdened by persistent stress. Earlier positive training effects had been shown in acutely stressful situations or on individual days – or were based on study participants’ self-reports. The current study thus provides the first objective evidence that mental training reduces physical signs of long periods of stress, even in healthy people.


  • What lies between grey and white in the brain

    2020 Kirilina, Evgeniya; Helbling, Saskia; Morawski, Markus; Pine, Kerrin; Reimann, Katja; Jankuhn, Steffen; Dinse, Juliane; Deistung, Andreas; Reichenbach, Jürgen R.; Trampel, Robert; Geyer, Stefan; Müller, Larissa; Jakubowski, Norbert; Arendt, Thomas; Bazin, Pierre-Louis; Weiskopf, Nikolaus
    Superficial white matter (SWM), a less than 1 mm thick interface between grey and white matter, contains most cortico-cortical white matter connections encompassing the short U-fibers. We developed an advanced neuroimaging method for SWM mapping in living individuals. Thereby we were able to show that the SWM contains significant amounts of iron. It is assumed that this iron is required for the myelination of the U-fibres. Our SWM mapping approach paves for systematic studies in the inter-individual differences, brain plasticity and pathologies in the human brain.


  • Memories of the future

    2019 Benoit, Roland
    Humans are capable of transcending beyond the here and now. Our memory systems allow us to vividly remember previous experiences. However, recent years have seen accumulating evidence that our memories are not just made for the past. Instead, they also allow us to mentally travel into the future by imagining prospective events. Such imaginings foster more farsighted decisions. They also allow us to learn much the same way that we learn from real experiences.


  • A navigation system for our thoughts

    2018 Bellmund, Jacob L. S.; Doeller, Christian F.
    How does the brain organize our experiences and our knowledge? A possible answer to this fundamental question: our brain’s navigation system forms so-called cognitive spaces in which we arrange our experience along feature dimensions, so that similar experiences are nearby in cognitive space. We propose this based on the combination of a wealth of findings about the functioning of place cells in the hippocampus and grid cells in the entorhinal cortex, which are central to spatial navigation. These cells also map cognitive spaces, thereby providing a spatial framework for human thinking.


  • Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us

    2017 Höhl, Stefanie
    Snakes and spiders evoke fear and disgust in many people. Even in developed countries lots of people are frightened of these animals although hardly anybody comes into contact with them. Until now, there has been debate about whether this aversion is innate or learnt. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig and the Uppsala University have recently discovered that it is hereditary: babies as young as six months feel stressed when seeing these creatures – long before they could have learnt this reaction.


  • How do sex hormones shape our brain and behavior?

    2016 Sacher, Julia; Barth, Claudia; Villringer, Arno
    Our sense of well-being is linked to our hormones. Nearly twice as many women as men develop depressive illness. While this suggests that sex hormones play a key role in depression, it is not understood how they affect mood. Very little is known about how the brain is influenced by endogenous hormonal changes across the range of days to months. This is a critical gap, because many mental illnesses show large fluctuations over this timescale. Recent evidence suggests short-term changes in neurochemistry and functional and structural networks modulated by physiological sex-hormone fluctuation.


  • Language acquisition – a long way to go for the brain

    2015 Skeide, Michael A.; Friederici, Angela D.
    The timing of developmental trajectories in language acquisition is paradoxical. Some milestones are reached very rapidly. For example, embryos are able to discriminate vowels already in utero [1]. Other milestones, however, like understanding grammatically complex sentences, are not even reached at the primary school age. What is the reason for this? Current neurobiological findings suggest that a brain network involved in processing grammatical information has to reach an adult-level maturity until it can provide its full function.


  • It’s how you say it: Pathways and mechanisms of prosody perception

    2014 Sammler, Daniela

    Speech is more than only words: The vocal tone – the prosody – often reveals more about the speaker’s communicative intention than the words themselves. While the neural networks of the left hemisphere, that decode the words, are already well-known, the description of the networks for prosody perception is comparably sparse. In this description of a project at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, the importance of white matter tracts in the right hemisphere will be shown and that also the motor system joins in when it comes to prosody perception.


  • Auditory processing in the brain: Dynamic adaptation to the acoustic environment

    2013 Herrmann, Björn
    Human perception is particularly flexible and allows us to recognize events as similar although they might occur in different contexts or situations. What are the mechanisms behind our flexibility in listening and perception? Two examples show how neural processes dynamically adjust to the acoustic environment and thereby provide the basis for flexibility of human perception.
  • The maturation of the social brain

    2013 Steinbeis, Nikolaus
    In the course of child development one can observe an enormous wealth of significant changes in social behaviour. While initially selfish and impulsive behaviour may be dominant, prosociality increases with age. Until recently, the associated changes occurring in the brain were unknown. We now know, however, that the maturation of brain regions responsible for exerting behavioural control enables older children to do the right thing at the right time and override more immediate selfish impulses.


  • Singing as speech therapy? Why rhythm and lyric type may do the trick

    2012 Stahl, Benjamin
    Left-hemispheric stroke patients often suffer a profound loss of spontaneous speech – known as aphasia. Yet, many patients are still able to sing entire pieces of text fluently. Some clinicians have taken this as proof that singing may help speech production and speech recovery in aphasic patients. Recent research now offers a different answer: it may not be singing itself that aids speech production and speech recovery in aphasic patients, but rhythm and lyric type. These new insights may call previous assumptions on singing therapies into question.
  • How our brain links faces and voices

    2012 Blank, Helen; von Kriegstein, Katharina
    During face-to-face communication we integrate information from face and voice in order to recognize the identity of our conversational partner and understand the speech message. Novel research has shown that the brain integrates auditory and visual modalities much earlier than was previously thought.


  • My Body and Myself: How Bodily Experiences Shape Self-Consciousnes

    2011 Schütz-Bosbach, Simone
    The question of the origin of human self-consciousness has recently been rediscovered by Cognitive scientists and neuroscientists. New research suggests that especially internal motor-related prediction processes contribute to the automatic self-ascription of events as well as to the subjective experience of authorship and control of actions. Accordingly, central aspects of our sense of self can directly be located in our body and be characterized as a by-product of actions.
  • How Infants Learn to Understand the Actions of Others

    2011 Daum, Moritz
    Humans act and interact in a social environment. Research in developmental psychology addresses the cognitive mechanisms that form the bedrock of the understanding of goal-directed actions. Recent findings indicate that early in life, actions such as grasping and pointing are already processed similarly as in adults on both the behavioural and the neurophysiological level. Research paradigms that can be applied with infants as well as with adults open up the possibility to explore social-cognitive development over a wide age range.


  • Listening to jazz improvisations: How the brain detects spontaneity in music performance

    2010 Engel, Annerose; Keller, Peter E.
    The ability to recognize the actions of other people as spontaneous or planned is an important pre-requisite for understanding and reacting to their behavior. Musical improvisation provides a valuable domain in which to study the neural bases of this ability. Experienced jazz musicians can detect whether or not a melody is improvised by merely listening to it. New results suggest that a brain structure known as the amygdala, which has been implicated in the detection of behavioral uncertainty, is sensitive to the degree of spontaneity in musical performance.
  • Training changes the brain much faster than previously thought

    2010 Taubert, Marco; Villringer, Arno; Ragert, Patrick
    Until recently, the general belief was that the structural organization of the human brain, apart from pathological conditions and aging, remains unchanged throughout adulthood. But recent evidence suggests that the brain is modifiable through learning across the lifespan. But to which degree and at what rate does experience changes brain structure? Recent research has shown that changes in brain structure already occur after a few sessions of training in a new motor task. This huge capacity for learning-induced brain changes might have a potential impact on rehabilitative training schedules.


  • Microstructures in the Living Brain: Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Myelin Sheath

    2009 Labadie, Christian; Möller, Harald E.
    Nerve fibers of vertebrates are enveloped by a lamellar membrane sheath referred to as myelin. Myelin acts as an electrical insulator and is of fundamental importance for the nerve conduction. By use of relaxographic magnetic resonance imaging, it is feasible to obtain spatial information about the myelin sheath through the observation of intercalated water molecules. This leads to a novel modality for microstructural investigations of the living brain.


  • The Brain as a Network

    2008 Knösche, Thomas Reiner
    The capabilities of the brain are based on an interplay between functional segregation and functional integration of neuronal populations within complex networks. The anatomical basis of these networks can be reconstructed using diffusion weighted magnetic resonance imaging. The dynamic interaction between the neuronal populations is described by models of neural masses and fields. The integration of these techniques with functional measurements and neuropsychological experiments opens up new perspectives for the investigation of the mechanisms of the human mind.
  • Language Develops With the Brain

    2008 Brauer, Jens
    Language is a basic property of human beings that distinguishes them from any other being we know. Children seem to effortlessly acquire this complex system of symbols and meanings. It is still an open question how children’s brains learn to administer the multifaceted tasks involved in language comprehension. Answers to this question are given by imaging methods that allow us to observe the children’s brains during the processing of language.


  • Magnetic resonance imaging at high field strength: Is stronger better?

    2007 Heidemann, Robin M.
    Magnetic resonance imaging is the most important tool in modern Neuroscience. Due to the continuing improvements in spatial and temporal resolution in this imaging modality, great progress could be made in the field of brain science. Nowadays, however, a point has been reached where further improvements in resolution is limited. The use of so called high-field systems can overcome these limits and facilitate new findings about the human brain.
  • Scientific thought-reading based on brain imaging signals

    2007 Haynes, John-Dylan
    Is it possible to tell from a person’s brain activity, what this person is currently thinking, feeling or even what he or she is planning to do? Recent research has shown that it is possible to decode and predict a person’s thoughts from functional magnetic resonance imaging signals. Such “thought reading” based on brain activity can be useful in revealing how the brain encodes information. This line of research also has a number of clinical applications such as for the control of computers and artificial prostheses based on brain activity or for the detection of cognitive activity in fully paralysed patients.


  • Action planning in tool use

    2006 Massen, Cristina; Lepper, Miriam; Prinz, Wolfgang
    Among the most fascinating motor abilities of humans and animals is the capacity to use tools in order to achieve desired effects in the environment. A study of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences shows that humans have an abstract internal model of the tool-specific mapping between external effect and associated bodily movement which is accessed in the process of action planning.


  • What's going to happen? Cognitive functions of a genuine motor cortex

    2005 Schubotz, Ricarda I.
    When we are about to cross a road and think about waiting for the next car or not, we have to coordinate two predictions at the same time. We anticipate both how things will change in our environment and how we will change things in our environment. However, brain activation shows that even if we do not plan to cross the road we still activate the same brain regions – those for action planning. Brain imaging addresses this phenomenon and tries to tackle the question as to why some cognitive functions make use of genuine motor regions of the brain.


  • Broca’s legacy: new ideas about the function of a major language centre of the brain

    2004 Bornkessel, Ina
    Of the language centres of the human brain, Broca’s region in the left frontal lobe is arguably the most famous. While this brain region was originally thought to be responsible for language production, research during the last decades has focused increasingly on its possible role in language comprehension. In particular, Broca’s region is activated more strongly during the comprehension of sentences in which the object precedes the subject. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences have recently proposed a new explanation for such findings, which assumes that Broca’s region plays a crucial role in the sequential ordering of different linguistic information types.
  • The role of response modalities in task switching

    2004 Philipp, Andrea M.; Koch, Iring
    Cognitive psychology usually examines performance of subjects in different experimental tasks. However, there is no consensus as regards how a “task” can be defined. In many experiments the requirement to categorize a stimulus is equated with the term task. A study of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences demonstrates that the modality of a response (e.g. verbal or manual responses) is equally important for the definition of a task. The results provide evidence that the same cognitive processes underlie switching between response modalities and switching between stimulus categories.


  • Music, Language and Meaning: Brain Signatures of Semantic Processing

    2003 Koelsch, Stefan
    Semantics is a key feature of language - whether music can activate brain mechanisms related to the processing of semantic meaning information has remained unknown. We compared processing of semantic meaning in language and music, investigating the semantic priming effect as indexed by behavioral measures and by the N400, a component of the event-related brain potential. Target words that are meaningfully unrelated to a prime sentence elicited a larger N400 than target words that were preceded by a related prime sentence. Our results reveal that target words which are preceded by meaningfully unrelated musical primes compared to words preceded by related musical primes also elicit an N400 effect. This N400 priming effect did not differ between language and music, with respect to time-course, strength, and neural generators. Results demonstrate that both music and language can prime the meaning of a word, and that music can, as language, determine physiological indices of semantic processing.
  • Effects of social context on action planning and control

    2003 Sebanz, Natalie; Knoblich, Günther; Prinz, Wolfgang
    In many situations, people coordinate their actions to achieve common goals. For that reason, it is crucial that each person forms a mental representation of the other group members' actions. This can be achieved through a direct observation-execution match: the process of observing an action activates the mental structures involved in one's own planning and control of this action. This implies that one and the same task should be performed differently depending on whether it is performed alone or alongside another agent. This assumption was confirmed in a series of reaction time studies and an EEG study. Social context had an effect on processes related to action planning and control. Taken together, the results suggest that others' actions are represented in a similar way to one's own.
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