Interview by Bonnie OMalley (BOM)
The MindBrainBody (MBB) Symposium, organized by the Neurology department of MPI CBS during the International Brain Awareness Week celebrated its 10th birthday this year. Through the years the event has gained an ever-expanding and increasingly international audience, boasting some of the biggest names in the fields of mind-body-brain interactions. After one cancellation (2020) and two online-only years, the MBB was finally able to host in person again (in addition to hybrid mode), and I was lucky enough to attend as a participating speaker. I spoke to Arno Villringer (AV) and Anahit Babayan (AB) to find out more about the background of the MBB, as well as aspirations for its future.
Firstly, a special congratulations to all Poster Prize winners:
Merve Kutli (Department of Psychology, LMU Munich)
Sarah Meissner (ETH Zurich)
Jessica L. Hazelton (Brain and Mind Centre, The University of Sydney)
And to the MBB Young Scientist Award Winners:
Jellina Prinsen (KU Leuven)
Aleksandra Piejka (Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw)
Sofija Perovic (Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Sapienza University of Rome)
Where did the idea for the MBB symposium come from?
AV: The idea initiated from brainstorming ways to promote research beyond the neurology department;
On the one hand, as a clinician, finding ways to communicate with clinically active people, practitioners and neurologists how to prevent stroke is paramount to practice - and we actually already had a symposium dedicated to this - The Prophylaxe Seminar.
On the other hand, the basic underpinning research is very important, and needs ongoing insight. Prevention of stroke is related to preventing pathological interactions between the mind, brain and body, and so fundamental research is also important. Moreover, young people are the future of research. In this way, the MBB was developed as a complementary symposium, and we wanted to target and invite young people, in order to motivate our next generation of researchers.
AB: And this is a core aim, and value of the MBB. To make it accessible to young researchers, from master’s PhDs, postdocs – and even bachelors students! This is why, we really do everything we can to keep the price low. We don’t even manage to cover all of the expenses, but it’s really important to us that, young researchers have an opportunity to transition into, and develop their skills for future research conferences.
How has the MBB changed over the years? I noticed for example that interoception was a really big topic this year – Are certain topics more prominent?
AV: Each year certain topics seem to dominate more than others. Sometimes it’s stress, or somatosensory processes or pain - but it’s always within the larger base topic of mind-body-brain interactions.
In terms of changes over the years - the overarching theme has always stayed the same. But it’s become bigger and more widely known. In the beginning it was very personal – I even had one participant from Russia stay at my house!
AB: Yes, and he’s continued to come most years after this! It is getting bigger, but somehow the intimate, friendly feeling remains. One thing which is lovely about the MBB is how easy it feels to go up to someone and start chatting – it’s almost like a ‘family’ atmosphere.
AV: Yes, all the people who help from our institute really help to maintain that sense of closeness, it’s a great effort. It’s not like a standard conference in the fact that we do not outsource specialists in conference organization. So, it’s a completely different, bottom-up process and feeling.
AB: From last year we also changed the format so that all talks, and prizes are decided for with the names and institutes anonymized. This meant that last year, 14/15 of the student talks were from women! It’s been a real step up in terms of reducing bias, and the outcomes from that decision have been very refreshing.
What challenges have you faced over the years?
AV: Well obviously covid made things very difficult. We had to cancel the first (covid) year as it was organized for one week after the lockdown started, and the zoom organization wasn’t widespread enough yet.
AB: The next two years were over zoom. And we’ve continued in hybrid mode, so now part of the challenge is keeping the options open for all the timezone differences, recording sessions and uploading them in time for people in different countries to watch and contribute to the later open Q&A session. Being able to balance participation from the lecture hall and online is important too.
AV: Saying that, covid also helped the symposium develop on an international scale.
AB: Yes, covid was potentially the catalyst for it’s huge growth in the past couple of years. We had 342 participants (200 in person). In our first year back in 2013, we only had 60 in total.
What can we expect for the next 10 years?
AV: We should think of developing a structure which is more independent – of the department, and of me – Perhaps it would be a good idea to have an advisory board, or a ‘Mind Brain Body Society’
AB: Yes, this could add value to the symposium, and mean that it’s not so focused around one person/department. We would still however want to have the central organizational role. One thing that we would really like to maintain is the personalized feel to the MBB. But if it continues to grow this could become difficult. With 342 participants, I had to respond to a minimum of 400 emails. Perhaps if we want to grow we will have to recruit assistants to help. Maybe we will have to find a new venue. Or maybe the current size is maximum capacity for maintaining the personalized atmosphere, and we shouldn’t strive to expand any more.
AV: Or we could have multiple sites! If we had separate symposium venues in different continents.. for example, one in Asia, one in Europe and one in America. This could alleviate the environmental impact of flying to different continents, yet participants would still experience the overall feel of an in-person conference.
BOM: I think this could be a good format for the future of conferences in general!
What makes the MBB so special?
AB: We’ll say it again, that our core aim is really to amplify, promote and empower younger voices in the field. For many people it’s their first poster, or their first talk. We really hope to keep this at the core of the MBB values.
We also continue to get wonderful feedback from participants. People have said how well they feel taken care of, respected, and communicated to in a friendly and non-hierarchical manner. Other conferences can feel separated, but there is really something that joins people together at the MBB. I think Arno’s character, of speaking to everyone on an unassuming and individual level really adds to this aspect of the togetherness.
Any final thoughts?
AB: I’d really just like to say that the MBB symposium is one of the busiest times in my yearly schedule – but it’s also the part of my job that I love and enjoy the most. It almost feels like a first child. We hosted the first MBB symposium just before my first thesis, and it’s only continued to develop and grow from then on.
We also thank all our keynote speakers and workshop holders, as well as sponsors over the years. Also special thanks to our team! They help our MBB Symposium grow more and more!
BOM: It seems fitting that the 10-year anniversary of the MBB aligned with Anahit’s own birthday, and I hope that she had a glass of wine and a very big piece of the special MBB cake to celebrate both occasions. Thank you so much to Anahit for your tireless dedication, it does not go unnoticed. And thank you to Arno, for the ongoing support of the symposiums concept, as well as encouraging young researchers! Especially as a first-time speaker, I can agree with everything said in the interview - The character of the conference felt safe and friendly, yet still lent challenge for everyone who presented something. I’m sure it has laid good groundwork for my own future of scientific speaking and was a great way to connect and deepen relationships with other budding scientists. If you get a chance next year, I would fully recommend the symposium – see you there!