Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

The aim of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig is to investigate human cognitive abilities and brain processes. The main focus of the research is on the neuronal basis of higher functions of the brain such as speech, music, and action. To this end, the scientists’ primary interest focuses on how these are perceived, processed, planned, and generated, as well as how perception and generation influence each other. They also investigate the plastic changes to the brain after strokes, and how these affect different cognitive abilities. The Department of Neurophysics, which was established in early 2007, is specifically concerned with the use and development of imaging methods for the neurosciences.


Stephanstr. 1 a
04103 Leipzig
Phone: +49 341 9940-00
Fax: +49 341 9940-221

PhD opportunities

This institute has an International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS):
IMPRS on Neuroscience of Communication: Funktion, Structure and Plasticity

In addition, there is the possibility of individual doctoral research. Please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute.

Children with cochlear implants learn words faster than hearing children
While children with an artificial cochlea are older when they are first exposed to spoken language, they build up their vocabulary faster than hearing children more
Stuttering: Stop signals in the brain prevent fluent speech
A hyperactive network inhibits the flow of speech more
Probability calculations - even babies can master it
At the age of six months, babies develop a sense of statistics more
Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us
Babies as old as only a few months are able to identify objects as 'spiders' or 'snakes' and respond to them more
“Mental training to become a tolerant global citizen”
Tania Singer, director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognition and Brain Sciences, talks about mental empathy exercises, our inner judge and prospects for peaceful coexistence more
Less stress, more social competence
Adults too can acquire social skills such as empathy and compassion more
Early language development in fast motion
Babies succeed much earlier than previously thought in assigning meanings to words and do not only perceive words as pure sound patterns more
Speaking after a stroke
Why certain linguistic abilities can be regained after a stroke while others are lost forever more
The amazing flexibility of the human mind
Even learning to read in your thirties profoundly transforms brain networks more
In people who intentionally let their minds wander, two main brain cell networks broadly overlap more
The arcuate fascicle – connection matters
Researchers discover brain structure that helps us to understand what others think more
Physical exertion increases the appreciation of the sounds produced in music making, even they don’t correspond to one’s own musical style more
Female brains change in sync with hormones
In parallel to rising estrogen levels, the Hippocampus increases in volume more
From South Korea to Germany, and back more
The willingness to help can be measured
Different tests measure various reasons for prosocial behaviour and are therefore difficult to compare more
Thomas Fritz, Leader of the Music Evoked Brain Plasticity Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, knows how to make people happy and fearless - essentially as a kind of welcome side-effect. He conducts experiments using exercise machines with which you can create music. The experience of exercising with this equipment and simultaneously creating unique sounds not only reduces bodily exhaustion, it also puts the user in a good mood and lowers their anxiety and pain levels - effects that give rise to a range of therapeutic applications.
From a very early age, children exhibit an amazing sense of fairness and justice. The older they get, the more compassion and empathy they develop. Nikolaus Steinbeis from Tania Singer’s department at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig is studying how the social behavior of children changes as they get older, and which of the brain’s networks play a role in this.
Not many Max Planck institutes can claim to have a fitness room – and that for research purposes, no less. But Arno Villringer at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig isn’t interested in hardening muscles. He wants to use the training equipment to study how training motion sequences changes the brain.
When people work together, they have to coordinate their actions very closely. Wolfgang Prinz, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, and his colleagues are investigating precisely what goes on in their heads in the process.

Ina Bornkessel

MPR 4 /2007 Culture & Society
Ina Bornkessel is researching the underlying principles of language processing in the brain. Her interest in this subject was sparked early on – during her childhood in Tasmania.
Ultimately, the brain serves to direct us to act purposefully and expediently. To do this, sensory impressions and experience must be implemented as planned motor activities – via a switching point, the premotor cortex. Ricarda Schubotz at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science in Leipzig is researching its function.
The Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research investigates how babies use their senses to get to grips with the world.
No job offers available

How do sex hormones shape our brain and behavior?

2017 Sacher, Julia; Barth, Claudia; Villringer, Arno
Cognitive Science Neurosciences

Our sense of well-being is linked to our hormones. Nearly twice as many women as men develop depressive illness. While this suggests that sex hormones play a key role in depression, it is not understood how they affect mood. Very little is known about how the brain is influenced by endogenous hormonal changes across the range of days to months. This is a critical gap, because many mental illnesses show large fluctuations over this timescale. Recent evidence suggests short-term changes in neurochemistry and functional and structural networks modulated by physiological sex-hormone fluctuation.


Language acquisition – a long way to go for the brain

2016 Skeide, Michael A.; Friederici, Angela D.
Cognitive Science Linguistics Neurosciences
The timing of developmental trajectories in language acquisition is paradoxical. Some milestones are reached very rapidly. For example, embryos are able to discriminate vowels already in utero [1]. Other milestones, however, like understanding grammatically complex sentences, are not even reached at the primary school age. What is the reason for this? Current neurobiological findings suggest that a brain network involved in processing grammatical information has to reach an adult-level maturity until it can provide its full function. more

It’s how you say it: Pathways and mechanisms of prosody perception

2015 Sammler, Daniela
Cognitive Science Linguistics Neurosciences

Speech is more than only words: The vocal tone – the prosody – often reveals more about the speaker’s communicative intention than the words themselves. While the neural networks of the left hemisphere, that decode the words, are already well-known, the description of the networks for prosody perception is comparably sparse. In this description of a project at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, the importance of white matter tracts in the right hemisphere will be shown and that also the motor system joins in when it comes to prosody perception.


The maturation of the social brain

2014 Steinbeis, Nikolaus
Behavioural Biology Cognitive Science Developmental Biology Neurosciences
In the course of child development one can observe an enormous wealth of significant changes in social behaviour. While initially selfish and impulsive behaviour may be dominant, prosociality increases with age. Until recently, the associated changes occurring in the brain were unknown. We now know, however, that the maturation of brain regions responsible for exerting behavioural control enables older children to do the right thing at the right time and override more immediate selfish impulses. more

Auditory processing in the brain: Dynamic adaptation to the acoustic environment

2014 Herrmann, Björn
Cognitive Science Linguistics Neurosciences
Human perception is particularly flexible and allows us to recognize events as similar although they might occur in different contexts or situations. What are the mechanisms behind our flexibility in listening and perception? Two examples show how neural processes dynamically adjust to the acoustic environment and thereby provide the basis for flexibility of human perception. more

Singing as speech therapy? Why rhythm and lyric type may do the trick

2013 Stahl, Benjamin
Cognitive Science Linguistics Neurosciences
Left-hemispheric stroke patients often suffer a profound loss of spontaneous speech – known as aphasia. Yet, many patients are still able to sing entire pieces of text fluently. Some clinicians have taken this as proof that singing may help speech production and speech recovery in aphasic patients. Recent research now offers a different answer: it may not be singing itself that aids speech production and speech recovery in aphasic patients, but rhythm and lyric type. These new insights may call previous assumptions on singing therapies into question. more

How our brain links faces and voices

2013 Blank, Helen; von Kriegstein, Katharina
Cognitive Science Linguistics Neurosciences
During face-to-face communication we integrate information from face and voice in order to recognize the identity of our conversational partner and understand the speech message. Novel research has shown that the brain integrates auditory and visual modalities much earlier than was previously thought. more

How Infants Learn to Understand the Actions of Others

2012 Daum, Moritz
Cognitive Science
Humans act and interact in a social environment. Research in developmental psychology addresses the cognitive mechanisms that form the bedrock of the understanding of goal-directed actions. Recent findings indicate that early in life, actions such as grasping and pointing are already processed similarly as in adults on both the behavioural and the neurophysiological level. Research paradigms that can be applied with infants as well as with adults open up the possibility to explore social-cognitive development over a wide age range. more

My Body and Myself: How Bodily Experiences Shape Self-Consciousnes

2012 Schütz-Bosbach, Simone
Cognitive Science
The question of the origin of human self-consciousness has recently been rediscovered by Cognitive scientists and neuroscientists. New research suggests that especially internal motor-related prediction processes contribute to the automatic self-ascription of events as well as to the subjective experience of authorship and control of actions. Accordingly, central aspects of our sense of self can directly be located in our body and be characterized as a by-product of actions. more

Training changes the brain much faster than previously thought

2011 Taubert, Marco; Villringer, Arno; Ragert, Patrick
Cognitive Science
Until recently, the general belief was that the structural organization of the human brain, apart from pathological conditions and aging, remains unchanged throughout adulthood. But recent evidence suggests that the brain is modifiable through learning across the lifespan. But to which degree and at what rate does experience changes brain structure? Recent research has shown that changes in brain structure already occur after a few sessions of training in a new motor task. This huge capacity for learning-induced brain changes might have a potential impact on rehabilitative training schedules. more

Listening to jazz improvisations: How the brain detects spontaneity in music performance

2011 Engel, Annerose; Keller, Peter E.
Cognitive Science
The ability to recognize the actions of other people as spontaneous or planned is an important pre-requisite for understanding and reacting to their behavior. Musical improvisation provides a valuable domain in which to study the neural bases of this ability. Experienced jazz musicians can detect whether or not a melody is improvised by merely listening to it. New results suggest that a brain structure known as the amygdala, which has been implicated in the detection of behavioral uncertainty, is sensitive to the degree of spontaneity in musical performance. more
Nerve fibers of vertebrates are enveloped by a lamellar membrane sheath referred to as myelin. Myelin acts as an electrical insulator and is of fundamental importance for the nerve conduction. By use of relaxographic magnetic resonance imaging, it is feasible to obtain spatial information about the myelin sheath through the observation of intercalated water molecules. This leads to a novel modality for microstructural investigations of the living brain. more

Language Develops With the Brain

2009 Brauer, Jens
Language is a basic property of human beings that distinguishes them from any other being we know. Children seem to effortlessly acquire this complex system of symbols and meanings. It is still an open question how children’s brains learn to administer the multifaceted tasks involved in language comprehension. Answers to this question are given by imaging methods that allow us to observe the children’s brains during the processing of language. more

The Brain as a Network

2009 Knösche, Thomas Reiner
Cognitive Science Neurosciences
The capabilities of the brain are based on an interplay between functional segregation and functional integration of neuronal populations within complex networks. The anatomical basis of these networks can be reconstructed using diffusion weighted magnetic resonance imaging. The dynamic interaction between the neuronal populations is described by models of neural masses and fields. The integration of these techniques with functional measurements and neuropsychological experiments opens up new perspectives for the investigation of the mechanisms of the human mind. more

Magnetic resonance imaging at high field strength: Is stronger better?

2008 Heidemann, Robin M.
Cognitive Science Neurosciences
Magnetic resonance imaging is the most important tool in modern Neuroscience. Due to the continuing improvements in spatial and temporal resolution in this imaging modality, great progress could be made in the field of brain science. Nowadays, however, a point has been reached where further improvements in resolution is limited. The use of so called high-field systems can overcome these limits and facilitate new findings about the human brain. more

Scientific thought-reading based on brain imaging signals

2008 Haynes, John-Dylan
Cognitive Science Neurosciences
Is it possible to tell from a person’s brain activity, what this person is currently thinking, feeling or even what he or she is planning to do? Recent research has shown that it is possible to decode and predict a person’s thoughts from functional magnetic resonance imaging signals. Such “thought reading” based on brain activity can be useful in revealing how the brain encodes information. This line of research also has a number of clinical applications such as for the control of computers and artificial prostheses based on brain activity or for the detection of cognitive activity in fully paralysed patients. more

Action planning in tool use

2007 Massen, Cristina; Lepper, Miriam; Prinz, Wolfgang
Cognitive Science
Among the most fascinating motor abilities of humans and animals is the capacity to use tools in order to achieve desired effects in the environment. A study of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences shows that humans have an abstract internal model of the tool-specific mapping between external effect and associated bodily movement which is accessed in the process of action planning. more

What's going to happen? Cognitive functions of a genuine motor cortex

2006 Schubotz, Ricarda I.
Cognitive Science
When we are about to cross a road and think about waiting for the next car or not, we have to coordinate two predictions at the same time. We anticipate both how things will change in our environment and how we will change things in our environment. However, brain activation shows that even if we do not plan to cross the road we still activate the same brain regions – those for action planning. Brain imaging addresses this phenomenon and tries to tackle the question as to why some cognitive functions make use of genuine motor regions of the brain. more
Of the language centres of the human brain, Broca’s region in the left frontal lobe is arguably the most famous. While this brain region was originally thought to be responsible for language production, research during the last decades has focused increasingly on its possible role in language comprehension. In particular, Broca’s region is activated more strongly during the comprehension of sentences in which the object precedes the subject. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences have recently proposed a new explanation for such findings, which assumes that Broca’s region plays a crucial role in the sequential ordering of different linguistic information types. more

The role of response modalities in task switching

2005 Philipp, Andrea M.; Koch, Iring
Cognitive Science
Cognitive psychology usually examines performance of subjects in different experimental tasks. However, there is no consensus as regards how a “task” can be defined. In many experiments the requirement to categorize a stimulus is equated with the term task. A study of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences demonstrates that the modality of a response (e.g. verbal or manual responses) is equally important for the definition of a task. The results provide evidence that the same cognitive processes underlie switching between response modalities and switching between stimulus categories. more

Music, Language and Meaning: Brain Signatures of Semantic Processing

2004 Koelsch, Stefan
Cognitive Science Linguistics
Semantics is a key feature of language - whether music can activate brain mechanisms related to the processing of semantic meaning information has remained unknown. We compared processing of semantic meaning in language and music, investigating the semantic priming effect as indexed by behavioral measures and by the N400, a component of the event-related brain potential. Target words that are meaningfully unrelated to a prime sentence elicited a larger N400 than target words that were preceded by a related prime sentence. Our results reveal that target words which are preceded by meaningfully unrelated musical primes compared to words preceded by related musical primes also elicit an N400 effect. This N400 priming effect did not differ between language and music, with respect to time-course, strength, and neural generators. Results demonstrate that both music and language can prime the meaning of a word, and that music can, as language, determine physiological indices of semantic processing. more

Effects of social context on action planning and control

2004 Sebanz, Natalie; Knoblich, Günther; Prinz, Wolfgang
Cognitive Science Social and Behavioural Sciences
In many situations, people coordinate their actions to achieve common goals. For that reason, it is crucial that each person forms a mental representation of the other group members' actions. This can be achieved through a direct observation-execution match: the process of observing an action activates the mental structures involved in one's own planning and control of this action. This implies that one and the same task should be performed differently depending on whether it is performed alone or alongside another agent. This assumption was confirmed in a series of reaction time studies and an EEG study. Social context had an effect on processes related to action planning and control. Taken together, the results suggest that others' actions are represented in a similar way to one's own. more
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