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The Great Mystery of the Mind

Using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner at Freie Universität Berlin, humanities researchers and students have been conducting interdisciplinary brain research for the last 10 years.

Dec 09, 2019

Two researchers from the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Berlin analyze brain images in the MRI control room. They use images like this as measurements to study the structure of the brain.

Two researchers from the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Berlin analyze brain images in the MRI control room. They use images like this as measurements to study the structure of the brain.
Image Credit: Elias Domsch

Anyone who wants to take on a magnetic field that is sixty thousand times stronger than the Earth’s should empty their pockets first. Loose change and keys do not stand a chance against the magnetic field that hides behind thick concrete walls in the basement of Freie Universität’s “Rostlaube” and “Silberlaube” buildings. The field generated by the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner helps students and researchers study and better understand the human brain and perception. The MRI scanner belongs to the laboratories of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Berlin, CCNB for short.

Researchers from different fields can use the scanner to observe brain activity under different conditions. They can trick it, provoke certain processes or block them, all in order to see how the brain reacts. The CCNB also has equipment to measure brain waves (EEG) and track eye movement.

Bachelor students can also use the equipment

The special laboratories are situated within the Department of Education and Psychology, which is unique in the world of academic research. Felix Blankenburg, a professor of psychology in the Neurocomputation and Neuroimaging Unit notes that it is extremely rare for a humanities department to have its own MRI scanner. “But to let bachelor students have access to the lab for their research projects, well, I doubt you will find that anywhere else,” he adds.

Professor Hauke Heekeren, managing director of CCNB and one of Freie Universität Berlin’s vice presidents, sees this as a logical step. He says, “Teaching is supposed to benefit greatly from the groundbreaking research we do here. It makes sense to honor that goal early on in a student’s academic career.” Master’s students in the “Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience” international degree program have opportunities to work intensively in the labs. The program’s abbreviation, SCAN, is no accident.

“From day one, SCAN master’s students get hands-on experience conducting research,” Hauke Heekeren explains. They also benefit from a strong network of researchers, he adds. Researchers from various institutions, including the Max Planck School of Cognition, the Berlin School of Mind and Brain (at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), and the International Max Planck Research School on the Life Course (LIFE), work in cooperation with the labs.

The lab’s operating hours also contribute to its popularity. The magnetic field runs all the time to meet the demand. When the scanner is recording, a muffled buzzing roars through the small room. A large white shelf on the wall is full of objects that show just how inventive the researchers can be: a rubber hand, Lego pieces, ping-pong ball halves, and pedals – these are just some of the implements used in experiments. Electronic devices interfere with the MRI scanner, so any tests conducted here must be analogue.

The research projects at CCNB are as varied as the equipment. Arthur Jacobs, a professor of experimental and neurocognitive psychology and initiator of the labs, had test subjects read Harry Potter novels to see what the brain does when readers are so captivated by a story that they forget their surroundings. One of his PhD students, Teresa Sylvester is currently studying how children emotionally understand the meanings of words, like the word “heart,” which refers to more than just an organ.

In the Biological Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience group, Hauke Heekeren showed individuals videos of BASE jumpers, people who jump off buildings, bridges, or other fixed structures with parachutes. The videos contain footage shot from jumpers’ helmet cameras during free fall. The neuroscientist wanted to find out how people regulate emotions, in this case, fear and euphoria.

Heekeren’s doctoral student, Rasmus Bruckner, is using the MRI scanner to study the influence of aging on the learning process and decision-making. In the Neural Dynamics of Visual Cognition group, Radoslaw Cichy leads a study that examines the intersection of machine learning and visual perception.

Doctoral student Siying Xie is looking at how the brain responds when someone sees something in front of them in the real world versus when someone just imagines seeing something. The rubber hand stored on the shelf has been used to fool test subjects into thinking it is their own hand. Timo Torsten Schmidt, a postdoc in the Neurocomputation and Neuroimaging Unit, conducted a study in which he put the rubber hand directly in front of the participant and would have them observe it being touched.

From the data collected, researchers were able to tell that the participants actually believed they were feeling the touch. In a similar study, test subjects also believed that they were hearing everyday sounds while actually they were completely shielded from noise in the scanner.

Over 400 series of experiments have already been carried out at the CCNB with 10,000 participants having undergone MRI scans. But for the researchers the last ten years are only just the beginning: Psychology professor Felix Blankenburg says that they have learned a lot about the brain already, but the mind remains a great mystery.

The MRI scanner in the basement of the main university buildings, the “Rostlaube” and “Silberlaube,” will continue to play an important role in scientific endeavors in years to come.

The original German version of this article appeared on October 1, 2019, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.

Further Information

The Beginnings

The Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Berlin (CCNB) began within the interdisciplinary research network “Languages of Emotions,” which was funded through the German government’s Excellence Initiative from 2007 to 2014 – the predecessor to the Excellence Strategy competition. Researchers from over 20 disciplines studied how emotions relate to language, art, culture, and society. In 2009, the MRI scanner moved to Fabeckstraße. After 70 research projects and almost 1000 publications, the laboratories of the Dahlem Institute of Neuroimaging of Emotions became part of the psychology department at Freie Universität.