Research topics range from the study of molecular building blocks and of the cellular networks they form, through the development and ageing of organisms, to the description of ecosystems and elucidation of global element cycles. Many institutes pursue an interdisciplinary approach. For example, the Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen has the goal of elucidating cognitive processes. It applies a broad range of methods from the fields of mathematics, information science and the natural sciences to study the many aspects of this highly complex problem. Approaches extend from machine learning and the mapping of brain functions to the neurophysiology of cognitive processes and the psychophysical basis of human perception. This methodological and thematic breadth is characteristic of many institutes in the Section.
In spite of this thematic diversity, there is one research focus that has grown rapidly within the Section in recent years — primus inter pares — and in which 12 institutes are involved: neurobiology. Some institutes devote their attention entirely to this area, such as the Institute of Neurobiology, the Institute of Experimental Medicine, the Institute of Brain Research and the Institute of Psychiatry. Other institutes have taken up neurobiological topics in individual departments. These include the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, which studies the evolution of the olfactory sense in insects, the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, where scientists are investigating the neurobiological basis of behaviour in birds, and the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, which is driving the development of neuroelectronic systems involving the connection of nerve cells and semiconductor chips. The emergence of this neurobiological focus can be traced back to the decisive advances made at both the methodological and the conceptual level in the study of the molecular and cellular basis of the brain, which now hold the promise of a breakthrough in the understanding of high-level cognitive processes and the ‘holy grail’ of cognitive science: the human mind. At this interface between biology and the human sciences, it should come as no surprise that the research work carried out by the Max Planck Society is highly intersectional, involving strong cooperation between institutes of the Biology and Medicine Section and the Humanities Section. A prime example is the planning of a new Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, which will transcend sectional boundaries in studying the basis of aesthetic perception in humans.