How can a neuroscientist get rich

The ghost in the laboratory

"At some point I slowly realized, okay, something is changing in my consciousness right now, but I can't exactly say what. But something is different now."

A test person tells. Neuroscientists from the University of Zurich have given her a hallucinogenic substance: the substance psilocybin, which, like LSD, changes consciousness. The researchers want to find out how psilocybin influences brain activity using electrodes on the test subject's head.

"Then I became drowsy and I noticed that my circulation was beginning to sag. And at that moment I just fell into a deep black tunnel and kept falling. On the walls of the tunnel there were strange spots of color and play of colors and I thought now everything will come to an end and I am completely helpless, I keep falling deeper and deeper and then suddenly I just let go and then just thought, well, that's how it is now, and then I can quickly get out of there again , I got myself back pretty quickly. "

However, it is not a normal test person who talks about this ambivalent drug experience. The report is from Nicolas Langlitz, a science and cultural anthropologist who works at the New School for Social Research. Science anthropologists go to a laboratory for several months. There they observe the goings-on of the scientists up close - like ethnologists who want to understand foreign cultures.

"In my case, participation was above all a participation as a test subject in the experiments. And by participating in such an experiment, which is experienced from the perspective of the test persons themselves, of course a number of critical questions arise for the research, which you can then discuss with the researchers. "

"Interestingly enough, I was, so to speak, the object of the anthropologist Langlitz - and to be an object of observation myself is interesting."

Felix Hasler is now a visiting scholar at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, a school founded as part of the German Excellence Initiative for doctoral students who work in the field of mind and brain. Before that, Hasler worked as a psychopharmacologist in the Zurich laboratory that Nicolas Langlitz was researching.

"I found it very funny that Mr. Langlitz then told us what we were actually doing here, from a larger perspective, so to speak. It is like this for many people: You are trapped in an everyday world, in my case it was a research world , in which one often simply deals with very specific and very detailed research questions, but often cannot really zoom out at all and ask oneself questions. "

The goal of the Zurich neuroscientists, which has become routine, was to uncover connections between hallucinogenic drugs and psychoses such as schizophrenia. How do drugs cause hallucinations in the brain and what can be learned from them about schizophrenia? That was the main question that Zurich wanted to answer as objectively as possible. In practice, however, this sometimes led to real cultural battles.


"The laboratory was certainly marked by ideological tensions between those who represented a more materialistic worldview, who pathologized hallucinogen experiences, on the one hand, and on the other hand those who had mystical experiences with a certain truth value in these psychedelic ones Have seen experiences. "


"Yes, I think I can be very open about that, I think I definitely had that, you also have certain affinities when you choose a career like this."

Do you also want to record what test persons experience spiritually while intoxicated? Or should one only measure the extent to which, for example, the perception of the test subjects has changed? Nicolas Langlitz observed how such questions were disputed in the Zurich laboratory when it came to planning an experiment in detail. Ultimately, there was only one winner in these confrontations: those who only accepted what was scientifically measurable in the brain.


"Well that was, you could say, pretty tough neuroscience that is being done there."

The psychological experiences of the test subjects and their personal history were largely ignored. Nicolas Langlitz, however, repeatedly noticed how these factors unexpectedly came into play in the experiment. For example, when an experienced meditation teacher was tested who said after the psilocybin experiment: This was the wonderful experience I had been waiting for all my life.

"So he described this trip in development and said, first he saw carnivalesque ghost trains, grimaces, so of course very fearful images that he encountered there. And at first he was totally overwhelmed by these visual impressions, which then also frightened And then he remembered one of the first and easiest meditations he had learned in his training, that was a very simple breathing technique where he paid attention to his inhalation and exhalation and that allowed him to develop his mind to concentrate, to let the pictures be pictures and to let them disappear in the end and to overcome the fear, and then he got into this very positive state of self-delimitation. "

This experiment clearly showed that not all brains are the same, but the personality, with its previous experience, has a strong influence on how an individual brain reacts to hallucinogenic substances. Nicolas Langlitz also observed that the scientists thought a lot about how to avoid bad trips. They tried to create a pleasant atmosphere for the test subjects, for example they also beautified the laboratory room.

Langlitz 'summary: The neuroscientists actually know that psychological and cultural influences change the effect of drugs. You also act on these influences yourself. However, this background is only included in their brain measurements to a limited extent. A shortcoming, says Felix Hasler, who has meanwhile also said goodbye to hallucinogen research for these reasons:

"Of course, Mr. Langlitz is fundamentally absolutely right. You can't do what brain researchers do most of the time, namely take the brain as an isolated organ and say: that which makes up a person in its entirety, everything that I need to be myself being is my brain. "

Obviously, there is a lot more culture in the neuroscientific laboratories than the researchers would like to admit when they only measure brain activity. However, Nicolas Langlitz's observations were about hallucinogenic effects in humans. Is the same true for neuroscientific research on animals?

The Oldenburg sociologist Gesa Lindemann has also ventured into the laboratory of brain researchers. However, for almost a year she devoted herself to the laboratory life of the monkeys in research institutions at home and abroad. In addition to mice and rats, macaques are the most important animals on which brain researchers conduct their studies. Gesa Lindemann was particularly interested in the tension that exists between laboratory practice and the demand for knowledge in such studies:

"In the experiment, a neuroscientist is dealing with the organism, with a hairy, stinking one - so monkeys don't always smell good, you have to say - and what the analysis is aiming at is: to refrain from all of this!"

Namely, that the researcher interacts with a living organism. Ultimately, the neuroscientist only wants to make a statement about brain functions. For this purpose, the researchers drill open the top of the monkey's skull, for example, and insert highly sensitive electrodes into certain areas of the brain in order to measure neuronal activity. The result is then presented as an activity pattern in these brain areas. Such results should then confirm a basic assumption of neuroscience: that an objectifying look into the brain is sufficient to explain mental performance, for example memory.

Gesa Lindemann thinks, however, that this assumption becomes problematic when you consider what precedes the bare result in the laboratory. The researcher has to get involved in the interaction with the monkey. Otherwise he cannot teach him how to participate in the experiment. For example, that he has to let go of a lever when he recognizes an image that is presented to him on a screen.

"It takes some time for the monkey to do that. The first time he only sees, so to speak: There are different images up there. That means, the first thing he has to understand is that what is happening there is one for." The task given to him is that he should react to it at all. "

The monkey must first be motivated to learn and participate before its brain can be meaningfully examined. For example, he gets a drop of water as a reward if he pushes the lever when two images are repeated. Long training is required for this alone. But even after that, the neuroscientists cannot concentrate on the monkey's brain alone. Often the macaques unexpectedly no longer participate properly in training or in experiments. And then the neuroscientists begin to really empathize with the animals they have all named:

"It's more like this: What's wrong with Maria? She's so strange. In the moment when things aren't going well, you have to try to understand: How is he now or how is she now and how must I change the situation so that the monkey can take part again on its own. "

So it is not simply said: the brain's working memory is not working. Rather, the neuroscientist finds that the monkey as a living organism has lost motivation. For example, this could be because he somehow got hold of water, so that he is no longer interested in the drops of water with which he is rewarded in the experiment. But he could also have problems with his fellow species:

"If the stress in the group affects how they take part in the experiment, and the scientists take that into account, and they also give a lot of thought to which monkey gets along with which and which monkey with which should definitely not be together. That is also a constant topic of conversation. "

The neuroscientists must therefore treat the monkey in the laboratory as an independent being with motivations, moods and feelings and for whom the experiment is only part of his life. You always have to understand him in order to measure his brain. For Gesa Lindemann, however, this is not sufficiently taken into account in current brain research:

"What the researchers are investigating is the reaction of the brain. And what they are observing is the behavior of the ape. These are two different levels. In principle, one would need a theory of the brain as an organ of the organism, so the brain is not as the central point, but the brain as a means by which the organism controls itself. And such a theory does not exist in neuroscience, but in neuroscience one correlates behavioral data - that is, pushing a lever, not pushing a lever - and then neuronal events . This is evaluated afterwards as if it were the brain that reacts to what appears on the screen. "

In reality, however, it is the monkey who was first brought about by a certain laboratory culture to carry out the experiment.

"Scientific knowledge is only valid insofar as the conditions under which these results are obtained can be specified."

Gesa Lindemann therefore demands: The neuroscientists should also make more detailed public information about the laboratory culture on which their results are based on monkey experiments.

"There are two types of living conditions that I have observed: Macaques are kept in such a way that the monkeys live together in groups, in twos, threes, fours or five in a cage, a larger cage room and then they live The other form is that the monkeys are in an individual cage and that several individual cages are next to each other in a larger room. This second form leads to a much closer contact between the monkey and the researcher. So in a certain way it makes itself Here the researcher himself becomes an ape, insofar as he has to accept that it is important for macaques to distinguish between those to which one submits and those to which one can submit to oneself when he has to be the one who is, so to speak, dominant in the relationship with the monkey. "

In their experiments, the brain researchers assume that the brains of the monkeys they are examining function in the same way. Gesa Lindemann, however, does not consider this to be proven. Because the brain researchers have not yet asked themselves a crucial question: How the different ways in which they deal with animals influence their brain performance. Animals kept differently could therefore have brains that react differently.

The philosopher Jan Slaby from the Free University of Berlin considers such rarely carried out cultural studies in the neuroscientific laboratories to be extremely important. In his opinion, it is precisely in everyday practice that brain research shows whether it is really capable of adequately understanding the human cultural being:

"If it is not about basic perception mechanisms, but about emotions or the effects of hallucinogens, for example, then the question is: Can you test it by showing emotional images that are presented in the scanner for three seconds? Are these real feelings as we have them in real life or do we have to try to create complicated, realistic settings? "

In addition, Jan Slaby thinks that there are general cultural influences that influence brain research, which apparently measures so objectively. In the machine age of the 19th century, neuroscientists also understood the brain as a machine. In the emerging computer age, the computer metaphor was transferred to the brain. And today, in the age of the Internet, the neuroscientific image of the brain corresponds exactly to this technical culture:

"A second, perhaps even more interesting connection is the one between the neoliberal world of work and the structure of the brain, in between, as the ideal employee of the New Economy is described: as creative, communicative, adaptable, able to work in a team, emotional, intelligent, self-motivated, he doesn't need any Strict leadership, no hierarchy, it all has to somehow run by itself. When you then look at how the brain is described - as exactly that: decentralized, network structure, self-organizing, able to compensate for failures, to repair and of course able to self-organize to adapt flexibly to changing environments - and that is an astonishing parallel. "

A parallel that led Jan Slaby, together with other philosophers and scientists, to found an international project group "Critical Neuroscience". In regular discussions, conferences and publications, she would like to contribute to the neurosciences carrying out more reflective research than before. Research that is aware of its cultural requirements and takes this into account when presenting its results.

Exhibition notice:

"Images of the Mind - imagery of the spirit from art and science"
German Hygiene Museum Dresden
23.7. – 30.10.2011