What makes us human? 10th Brain Circle

What makes us human?"What a heading for the brain circle meeting. I had expectations, question marks in my brain the days before and I was curious. After four wonderful days, outside foggy and rainy, inside lightened by the intellectual and scientifical brilliance of outstanding professors of the brain circle and of Hebrew University question marks became even bigger, curiosity grew to the same extent. It was an honour for me and I guess for everybody to be presented with the latest, sometimes not even published findings of science. We could catch a glimpse into the „we or the us“ of humanity at this point of time and the possible future of ourselves which seemed inspiring or frightening depending on your own state of mind. Wow…


But not less exciting was the view backwards some 1,5 million years – imagine how many generations – to the Acheulean industry which means the first standardized tradition of toolmaking. Prof. Naama Goren-Inbar showed us typical biface stone artifacts which required special cutting techniques and gave us an insight in her research of comparison between hominid adaptive strategies to the environment. Most astonishing for me was that these skills of early hominids got lost or forgotten. Neanderthals had not the same abilities. So why are we worried about new technological leaps and loss of others?


Human epigenetics, the so to say add-on to genetics, was the topic of Prof. Meshorer. From embryonic stem cells formodelling human diseases to recent trends in human evolution. New findings like CRISPR or in simple words similar DNA sequences in combination with new techniques such as fluorescent marking opens new possibilities. Now scientists for instance are capable of remodelling already functionalized cells like skin cells back to omnipotent stem cells. This will improve gen therapy enormously.


Unique neurons and circuits in the human neocortex was the focus of the unique Prof. Idan Segev, who not only is a great scientist but also a gifted head of the brain circle as far as science is concerned and already has true fans among us. From Idan you can learn all about neurons, synapsys, dendrites i.a. They are more or less input output devices that are highly interconnected in neural networks like nonlinear dynamic systems. Besides the facts as such which is fascinating is the tremendous work of years and years  to find the unique characteristic of a special neuron and is a proof of its function in the system on different levels like biophysical principles with mathematical theories.  I was happy with verbal and visual information without underlying maths.


One of the professors who sent shockwaves through our nervous system and I did not know whether Idans dendrites in my brain reacted exciliating or inhibitory was Prof. Naftali Tishby. He talked about the Deep Learning Revolution and the limits of (human) intelligence. We learned about the development from artificial intelligence to machine learning and finally deep learning which is learning based on deep neural networks. On the bases of statistical learning, information theory and stochastic dynamics of training process he developed the information bottle neck theory which in a nutshell says forgetting is the most important thing in learning and I guess consequently in decision making. So it is all about data processing. My brain already came to its limits in input or data processing. But what a fascinating theory.


Prof. Chaim Sompolinsky took us along the scientific search for consciousness with interesting questions such as what is it, why do we have it, is it a topic of science, is it an all or none phenomenon. We learned a lot about the conscious and the subconscious part at the same time. And the question was raised do have machines consciousness?


These questions opened the last session in the panel: what makes us human? We, the audience have had ideas about it, each professor had his own, sometimes completely controversial, idea about it, but one thing is relatively sure: what we thought would make us unique like emotions, feelings most probably is not what we thought it to be, not even decision making. The only aspect maybe is at this point of time our ability to cover a timespan from the past to the future beyond ourselfes  in our consciousness . Wow..


The other lectures of Prof. Merav Ahissar about Dyslexia and Autism or Prof. Eli Nelken about the emergence of Music and Language and Dr. Aviv Mezer were as well very interesting, I only heard involved discussions after that but unfortunately was not able to attend.


But not only our neurons for this kind of input but as well for perception of art were addressed. The well known artist Michal Rovner presented videos of her unique form of combining different times and different places to one new reality or one place, one makom. Somehow she invented a new language or not if you think of ancient Hebrew and the special aspects of time. Great work…


Last but not least our guided tours on Shabbat with the visit of the Portuguese Synagogue, which was the largest in the 17th century worldwide and has a very special atmosphere, the Jewish Historical Museum , which showed the rich Jewish life in Amsterdam, The Anne Frank House or examples of the Golden Age of Amsterdam like the Rijksmuseum, the Bartolotti House or the present art scene with street art figure Hero de Janeiro and the red light district of Amsterdam rounded off our meeting.


The evenings were filled with lively talks in local restaurants, a wonderful Traditional Shabbat Dinner and a Special Event Celebrating the 10 Years of the Brain Circle in the magnificent and exclusive Golden Age Portrait Gallery of the Hermitage Museum hosted by the President of the Hebrew University, Professor Asher Cohen.

Toda raba Mr. President, thank you Brain Circle Professors and staff for an outstanding event. Being a member of Brain Circle would be an honour for everybody. The researchers and Brain Circle deserve any assistance possible. 


Gabriele Meloch                                                                                    Berlin , 22 th November  2017