Ernst Strüngmann Forum


Dynamic Coordination in the Brain

From Neurons to Mind

Christoph von der Malsburg, William A. Phillips, and Wolf Singer, Chairpersons

Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Program Advisory Committee

Sten Grillner, Nobel Institute for Neurophysiology, Karolinska Institutet,
171 77 Stockholm, Sweden
William A. Phillips, University of Stirling, Stirling, Scotland, U.K.
Steve Silverstein, Division of Schizophrenia Research, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey,
Piscataway, New Jersey, U.S.A.
Wolf Singer, Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, 60528 Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Olaf Sporns, Department of Psychology, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, U.S.A.
Christoph von der Malsburg, Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, Frankfurt am Main, Germany


To explore the mechanisms and manifestations of distributed dynamic coordination in the brain and mind across species and levels of organization.

Key questions and issues to be explored include:

  • What is the nature of coordination?
  • Is coordination dictated or self-organized?
  • Are the mechanisms of coordination universal? If so, do they operate in all cognitive domains and cortical regions?
  • To what extent are coordinated states pre-ordained by evolved behavioral patterns, generated by learning or by situation-specific dynamic mechanisms?
  • How are novel groupings formed to meet novel circumstances?
  • What is the role of the context of current situations and tasks in producing coherent states?
  • How can neural systems combine flexibility with reliability?
  • To what extent are neurological or psychiatric disease states an expression of disturbed coordination?
  • What is a signature of a coordinated state (i.e., of a result)?
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The human mind effortlessly and flexibly coordinates its various resources into coherent percepts, thoughts, and actions as appropriate to the current circumstances. How this is accomplished, however, has been an issue of long-standing debate. Identifying the underlying principles of dynamic coordination and exploring the commonalities across disciplinary perspectives is the challenge to be addressed by this Forum.

A pervasive idea holds that coordination is the result of interpretation and strategic planning by a central executive, possibly housed in the prefrontal cortex. Conceptual difficulties with this concept and evidence from several different disciplines suggests, however, that coordination is predominantly distributed, that it arises from local interaction and self-organization within and between the brain's elements themselves.

To approach our goal, we must overcome the fact that the classic concept of self-organization does not incorporate goal orientation, which is the hallmark of strategic planning in the mind. Including it without falling back into the fallacy of top-down coordination is necessary.

Mental coordination finds powerful expression in the integration of polymodal percepts and the planning of motor patterns. Central mechanisms of coordination include focused attention and working memory. Each subsystem is simultaneously exposed to a multitude of competing signals, from which attention selects functionally corresponding elements, thus resolving the ambiguity as to what relates to what. It is thus necessary to address the physiological mechanisms by which functionally related elements are selected as well as the computational theories that have been invoked to describe coordination in neural systems.

Coordination requires vast amounts of knowledge (priors). Sources of this knowledge are evolution, early imprinting, and adaptive learning. In return, a better understanding of the mechanisms of coordination could have major consequences for the study of learning, because learning cannot encompass all neuronal activity, but only those patterns that are recognized as coherent and relevant.

Coordination of parts of a system into one coherent, functional whole is the essence of what is termed organization. Over the years, brain theory and research into neural networks has succeeded in prying apart the various parts of the neuronal system. Specialization has indeed advanced our understanding of the individual parts; however, this reductionist approach needs to be complemented with a comprehensive effort to understand how distributed functions are coordinated into a coherent whole. Through this Forum we hope to engage neurobiologists, psychologists, and theoreticians in a discourse that will traverse disciplinary understanding and expose new avenues to pursue, and perhaps even initiate, a paradigm shift.

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Group 1: Evolution of Dynamic Coordination

  • Are simpler animals appropriate models for studying the mechanisms of coordination?
  • Are the mechanisms of dynamic coordination constant throughout evolution?
  • Is there an evolutionary history of the ability to coordinate within the nervous system?
  • Do higher animals, especially humans, display higher forms of coordination?
  • Does autonomous behavior presuppose mechanisms of dynamic coordination?
  • Is there evolutionary continuity in basic patterns of coordinating behavioral patterns?
  • Are there discernable evolutionary quantum leaps in the ability to coordinate behavior?

Group 2: Dynamic Coordination in Local Circuits

  • How can local microcircuits contribute to global coordination?
  • What is coordination in terms of neural signals and synaptic strengths?
  • How does neural activity encode relational structures?
  • Are there general computational principles underlying dynamic coordination?
  • Is there a signature of state coordination?
  • Is temporal correlation or rhythmic activity a sign of dynamic coordination? If so, is it a passive reflection of coordination or does it play a causal role?
  • Do some synaptic mechanisms or microcircuit features play a special role in the dynamic coordination of ongoing activity?
  • What is the neurophysiological evidence for contextual modulation?
  • How does spontaneous activity contribute to coordination in task-driven circumstances?

Group 3: Dynamic Coordination in Brain Systems

  • How are different brain regions coordinated?
  • What is a "coordinated mental state"? Can it be specified formally, and can it be quantified?
  • Does the coordinated mental state reflect past statistical structures and/or abstract formal structures?
  • What is the role of mappings across levels (especially top-down projections)?
  • Do lateral and descending pathways have a special role in the dynamic coordination of feedforward activity?
  • What is the role of the prefrontal cortex? Does it have distinct coordinating capabilities?
  • To what extent is action coordinated through closed-loop control?
  • How important are Bayesian perspectives? What is the role of combinatorics?
  • Is uncertainty represented in neuronal activity, and, if so, how?
  • How is attention implemented at the neuronal level?

Group 4: Dynamic Coordination in Behavior and Cognition

  • How are cognitive subsystems coordinated?
  • Is coordination tantamount to alignment under behavioral goals?
  • Do cognitive studies imply the existence of a "central executive"? If so, what is its internal organization, and what are its specific responsibilities and capabilities?
  • In what way is a Gestalt more than its elementary features?
  • What are the Gestalt grouping principles?
  • How does neural activity signal Gestalts?
  • Can a distinction be made between perceptual organization accomplished via dynamic coordination versus that achieved via prespecified feature hierarchies?
  • Are similar mechanisms of dynamic coordination involved in object and scene perception?
  • Are similar mechanisms of dynamic coordination involved in integration across space (i.e., in vision) and across time (i.e., in audition)?
  • What are the dynamic coordinating mechanisms involved in the perception-action cycle?
  • What is the role of dynamic coordination in social cognitive and affective processing? To what extent does perception use context to reduce the uncertainty that is present in the local information?
  • Is the restricted capacity of attention crucial to coordination?
  • What criteria determine allocation of attentional and working memory resources?
  • How strong is the evidence for biased competition theories of attention, and in what ways do they need to be improved?
  • Does cognition depend upon representing relationships between elements in addition to the elements themselves?
  • What do the effects of brain damage, psychopathology, and neurodevelopmental disorders tell us about dynamic coordination?
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