Until the present day...

The history of the institute

The origins of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics go back to the “Cybernetics Research Group” created by Werner Reichardt at the Max Planck Institute for Biology. This group was formed in 1958 under the presidency of Otto Hahn and as a result of the initiatives of Wolfhard Weidel, Georg Melchers, and Alfred Kühn.

In 1965, Adolf Butenandt, then President of the Max Planck Society, inaugurated the first tract of the current building. It hosted the Reichardt department, the fourth department of the MPI for Biology at that time.

The institute in its current, independent form was created in 1968, with Werner Reichardt, Karl Georg Götz, Kuno Kirschfeld, and Valentin Braitenberg as the founding directors. From the beginning, the institute's research interests have been centered on the acquisition and processing of visual information in the nervous system, originally through the behavioral analysis of the visual system of insects. It was clear to all four founding directors that a detailed and quantitative study of behavior would provide excellent indirect insights into the information processing mechanisms of the brain and lay the foundation for subsequent functional and structural studies carried out with invasive neuroscientific methods.

With the advances made in perception research and innovations in the area of experimental tools, the thematic focus of the institute has shifted towards the elucidation of cognitive processes. The Neuroanatomy Department directed by Valentino Braitenberg and the Comparative Neurobiology Department expanded their research to vertebrate nervous systems. The Department Braitenberg focused mainly on structure and function of the cerebral cortex and cerebellum, the Department Kirschfeld continued to focus on the visual system including now vertebrates up to humans.

Development of the next generation

The thematic shift of the institute’s research program, however, is best reflected in the special interests of the directors appointed over the last 18 years. Their departments, Human Perception, Cognition and Action, formed in 1993, Physiology of Cognitive Processes, founded in 1997, Empirical Inference, founded in 2001, and finally the department for High-Field Magnetic Resonance, founded in 2003, apply complementary methodological approaches to the systems analysis of complex processes in the brains of primates.

In February 2011, Klaus Scheffler, professor at the Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN) was appointed Max Planck Fellow of the Max Planck Society. He is head of the Magnetic Resonance Center.

In the course of the years 2009 and 2010 the initiatives of Bernhard Schölkopf led to the foundation of a new institute in Tübingen, the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (MPI-IS). This institute originated from the Max Planck Institute for Metal Research in Stuttgart, half of which still remains in Stuttgart.

Third generation

For the departments for Computational Neuroscience and Sensory and Sensorimotor Systems, the Max Planck Society attracted two scientists in 2018, whose background and expertise perfectly fit the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, with its storied history in linking theoretical and experimental neuroscience. Two further directors will be appointed in the upcoming years, totaling five departments. 

What is "Biological Cybernetics"?

Cybernetics comes from the Greek words ‘kybernitiki’ (the art of steering and controlling) and ‘kybernitis’ (the steersman). It denotes the study of control mechanisms in humans, animals and machines. Cyberneticists seek to understand the behavior of animals and humans and to develop models and machines, which can react to certain external influences in an intelligent fashion. In order to explain behavior, we must not only observe, measure and describe it, but also understand the biological processes behind it. Information processing in the nervous system plays a decisive role. In artificial systems or ‘machines’, the correlations are usually much simpler, because such machines are almost always constructed for a specific purpose and, in contrast to the living brain, they often consist exclusively or at least predominantly of information-processing structures. The field of biological cybernetics has developed a large number of different approaches and their combination releases enormous synergies. Biological cybernetics pursues a broad spectrum of research on diverse animal species out of the great range brought forth by evolution and investigates a great number of biologically inspired artificial models, some of which have lastingly influenced the development of technical systems. A well-known example is the use of neural networks in computer science.

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