Critical Neuroscience


Renowned neuroscientists have begun to critically reflect upon the metaphysical underpinnings of their discipline (e.g. [1-3]). Contemporary neuroscience assumes, to a large extent, mid-19th-century rationalist metaphysics regarding questions about the cortical localization of cognitive functions, the reduction of behavior to physiology, the epistemological challenges of big-data technology, or the ecological validity and reproducibility of neurophysiological experiments. Therefore, critical reflection of their own tacit methodological assumptions by active researchers is a remarkable turn that can be compared with Kant's [4] critical philosophy that eventually overcame dogmatic metaphysics. According to Kant [4, BXXII], critical philosophy "is a treatise on the method, not a system of the science itself". In this sense, our in-depth-workshop on Critical Neuroscience [5] will bring together active neuroscientists and an interested audience in order to reflect and to discuss the methodological and "transcendental" [4, B27] prerequisites of current theoretical and experimental neuroscience.


[1] Frisch, S. (2014). How cognitive neuroscience could be more biological - and what it might learn from clinical neuropsychology Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8.

[2] B. Kotchoubey, F. Tretter, H. A. Braun, T. Buchheim, A. Draguhn, T. Fuchs, F. Hasler, H. Hastedt, T. Hinterberger, G. Northoff,  I. Rentschler, S. Schleim, S. Sellmaier, L. Tebartz Van Elst, & W. Tschacher (2016). Methodological problems on the way to integrative human neuroscience. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 10, 41.

[3] J. W. Krakauer, A. A. Ghazanfar, A. Gomez-Marin, M. A. MacIver, & D. Poeppel (2017). Neuroscience needs behavior: correcting a reductionist bias. Neuron 93(3), 480-490.

[4] I. Kant (1999). Critique of Pure Reason. Translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[5] S. Choudhury & J. Slaby, eds. (2012). Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience. Hoboken: Blackwell.


Workshop presenters


Hans A. Braun

Institute of Physiology, 

University of Marburg, Germany


Peter beim Graben (chair)

Communication Engineering

Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg, Germany


Alex Gomez-Marin

Behavior of Organisms Laboratory

Institute of Neuroscience Alicante, Spain


Georg Northoff

Mind, Brain Imaging and Neuroethics Research Unit 

University of Ottawa, Canada



Hans A. Braun 

Harnessing Stochasticity - for Flexible Brains


If one accepts that decisions are made by the brain and that neuronal mechanisms are obeying deterministic physical laws it is hard to deny what brain researchers like Gerhard Roth or Wolf Singer conclude, e.g. “We do not what we want but we want what we do” or “We should stop talking about freedom. Our actions are determined by physical laws”. On the other hand it is known that biological systems, due to their particular organization, can harness stochasticity thereby offering innumerable choices for the brain – only to overlook with the knowledge of Laplace’s demon. However, this would be metaphysics, not only in the opinion of philosophers like Bertrand Russel. Here, experimental recordings, supplemented by computer simulations, will be used to demonstrate that biological systems, specifically brain functions, are built up on randomness which is already introduced at the lowest level of neuronal information processing, the opening and closing of ion channels. These transitions, indeed, are following physiological laws but apparently also need to make use of randomness – principally unavoidable under all life compatible conditions. This randomness will not necessarily smear out towards higher functional levels but can even be amplified by cooperative effects with the system’s nonlinearities. Examples shall be given to illustrate how stochasticity can propagate from ion channels to single neuron action potentials to neuronal network dynamics to the interactions between different brain nuclei up to the control of autonomic functions and consciousness. This is not an additional attempt among many others to demonstrate that the complexity of the brain makes it difficult to avoid randomness. This study is specifically emphasizing on the particular organization of biological systems to taking advantage of stochasticity – from whatever sources.



Hans Albert Braun has a broad multidisciplinary background. Trained as electrical engineer he has been developing data analysis tools and has constructed stimulation and recording devices for electrophysiological research. He has used different experimental techniques for neuronal impulse recordings in brain slices and from sensory receptors. The experimental work has been supplemented by mathematical simulations of neural coding (e.g. the Huber-Braun model) and network synchronization, extended by mathematical models of mental disorders, stress responses and sleep-wake cycles what also led him contribute in responsible position to a big EU “Network of Excellence” (BioSim) to implement computer simulations for more effective drug development. He has been confronting the idea of a deterministic brain on which recent attacks against the free are based demonstrating particular ability of biological systems to harnessing stochasticity. Hans Braun has combined his experimental and mathematical expertise with his longtime teaching experience for the design of highly realistic virtual laboratories for students’ education, the “Virtual Physiology” series (, which has received several international awards. Work of Hans Braun is documented by numerous publications in often high ranking international journals, including “Nature”. He is member of several national and international scientific societies and has been honored as Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS).



Peter beim Graben

Contextual Emergence in Neuroscience


I survey three applications of contextual emergence in neurodynamical systems. The concept of contextual emergence has been proposed as a non-reductive relation between different levels of description of physical and other systems where a "lower level" description comprises necessary but not sufficient conditions for a "higher level" description. These are supplied by contingent contexts implementing particular stability conditions. Regarding neural systems as high-dimensional dynamical systems that can be coarse-grained by contextually chosen observables, the coarse-grained dynamics can be described by Markov chains. Stability conditions require the existence of invariant, ergodic (and mixing) probability measures over the system's phase space. First, I argue that the canonical Hodgkin-Huxley action potential dynamics can be regarded as being contextually emergent upon a higher level Markov chain description of ion channels that is not comprised by its lower level description as molecular dynamics. Secondly, I rephrase Amari's macrostate criterion for random neural networks as structural stability for coarse-graining contextual observables. If those observables induce a finite partition of the phase space, Amari's criterion can be related to the existence of a Markov partition implementing structural stability. Thirdly, I relate Chalmers' definition of "Neural Correlates of Consciousness" (NCCs) with contextual emergence, when a neural system is necessary for the emergence of a conscious state. The sufficient conditions are then provided by contextually given "phenomenal families" of mental observables that induce a partitioning of the neural phase space. This partition is stable when sequences of mental states form an ergodic Markov chain. 


Reference: P. beim Graben (2016). Contextual emergence in neuroscience. In A. El Hady (Ed.) Closed Loop Neuroscience, Amsterdam: Elsevier, 171 – 184.



Peter beim Graben studied physics and philosophy at the University of Hamburg and received his PhD in physics at the University of Potsdam in 2000.  Since then he worked in different positions at the University of Potsdam, the University of Reading, and the Humboldt-University Berlin. Currently his affiliation is the department for communication engineering at Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg. He was Heisenberg Fellow of the German Research Foundation from 2010 – 2015 and was hosted as visiting professor at INRIA Nancy, Hong Kong Baptist University, the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics and University Ansbach. His main research field is the theory of cognitive dynamical systems, in particular quantum cognition and symbolic dynamics and their relations to neural networks and formal language theory. 



Alex Gomez-Marin

Deep Thought and Questionless Neuroscience 


The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42 — at least according to Deep Thought, the supercomputer featuring in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. To the desolation of the descendants of the programmers who posed that question seven and a half million years ago, the machine replies: “You have to know what the question actually is in order to know what the answer means”. To answer (not the question but) what the question was, Deep Thought then promises to design yet a more powerful computer. It shall provide the ultimate question to the existing ultimate answer. Comedy science-fiction and current neuroscience can often be indistinguishable. If the brain is the answer, what was the question? The promise of technology to disclose the mysteries of the mind is the mantra of so many scientists, administrators, journalists and politicians today. They say we can because we will. It is difficult to be against more tools or more data in principle. Mistake us not for neuro-luddites. Yet, the worship for "big data" and "new technology" reflects a void, which is a drain. Neuroscience is theory poor (and lately even proudly so). What counts as results is nearly exclusively empirical; the rest is deemed either as a review or speculation. When "all you need is data" (and to "let it speak"), we can't produce but questionless answers (and hear voices). Moreover, data collection for data's sake is arguably something different than experimentation. When it comes to intervention, the null hypothesis is actually dull: "let's change X to see what happens to Y". And when correlation is not mistaken for causation, counterfactuals are erected explanation, if not understanding. Causality is neuroscience's holy-grail; to "manipulate and measure" the methodology deployed to obtain its surrofate: "necessity and sufficiency". Who needs theory or hypothesis-driven science when we have the latest device for high-throughput data collection and the latest software for unsupervised analysis? But that is not all. It is worse. The conceptual scaffold with which we formulate our research programmes, paper abstracts and lecture titles is "the role of X in Y". X is your favourite molecule or neuron, Y is a psychological construct. The molecular vision of life of the previous century ("I am my genome") has reincarnated in the neural vision of mind ("I am my connectome"). Biology has become gene mapping and circuit cracking. The mereological fallacy is rewarded: localize of function and publish. Reduction (rather than unification, so powerful in physics) is sought. Namely, the autocracy of the neural level explains away behavior and cognition as epiphenomena. Life and mind can only be complicated mechanisms, and the individual is smeared out by statistics (we know what mice do, not what the mouse did; nor do we care). Materialism still reigns — but in the paradoxical flavour of informationalism, where matter actually does not matter. What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind. Finally, a philosophy that disdains philosophy guides the field. Attempts to be conceptually deep meet the conversation stopper: "it is just semantics".  And we mask all that with filler verbs and clickbait adjectives (ie, "the critical role of"). Students do not read books anymore, but only the latest Nature paper in their narrow field of interest. Thinking is time not spent producing data (which equals money). Overall, we have a "halting problem". Critique is taken as criticism — negative, unproductive, and progress inhibiting (we are encouraged to always move forward even if we do not go anywhere). That's all bad news indeed, but fake news are worse. Personally, the challenge is to get better, not bitter. Collectively, I am not sure what can be done. It is time we engage in critical neuroscience. It has to be an inside job.



Alex Gomez-Marin is a theoretical physicist who turned into behavioral neuroscience. He holds a degree in Physics, a Masters in Biophysics, and a PhD in Physics from the University of Barcelona, which he earned in 2008. After his PhD work studying the origins of the macroscopic arrow of time, he switched from pen-and-paper calculations to computational neuro-ethology. In his first postdoc at the EMBL-CRG Systems Biology Research Unit he investigated the sensory-motor transformations underlying larval chemotaxis. In 2013 he moved to the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme, at the Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, to study postural organization in worms, locomotor behavior in flies, and operant learning in mice. In 2016 Alex started his own group at the Instituto de Neurociencias in Alicante, where he leads the Behavior of Organisms Laboratory, whose mission is to establish shared principles of animal behavior across species. As a Ramón y Cajal Fellow, his quest to understand the nature of biological movement lies at the intersection of neuroscience, art, and philosophy.



Georg Northoff

What Provides the Link between Brain and Consciousness? Temporo-Spatial Theory of Consciousness 


Consciousness and its neural substrates remain mystery. Several neural theories of consciousness like integrated information theory and global neuronal workspace theory have been suggested. However, why and how a neuronal state can transform into a phenomenal and thus conscious state remains still unclear. This raises the question for the glue or "common currency" of neuronal and phenomenal states as that necessary for the former to transform to the latter. Based on several lines of evidence including neuroscience, neurology, and psychiatry, I here suggest a temporo-spatial approach to consciousness that conceives phenomenal features as constructions of virtual time and space, e.g., the brain's inner time and space. This amounts to a temporo-spatial approach to consciousness and its phenomenal features as recently formulated in the temporo-spatial theory of consciousness.



Georg Northoff is a psychiatrist, neuroscientist and neurophilosopher in the field of psychiatric disorders and dissociative states at the IMHR/ROMHC. He is a Full Professor at University of Ottawa, holds the Canada Research Chair tier 1 in Mind, Brain Imaging & Neuroethics since 2009 and 2 Chairs of Excellence at top 5 universities in China; he held the 2009-16 uOttawa Michael Smith Chair EJLB-CIHR. As (1) director of the Mind, Brain Imaging & Neuroethics unit at the uOttawa Institute of Mental Health Research, (2) scientific director of the Brain Imaging Centre (BIC) at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Center (ROHMC), (3) director of the Heart-Brain registry (ROHMC/BIC), and (4) co-founder/co-director of the Taiwan Brain & Consciousness Research Center, he leads these synergistic organizations identifying neurobiochemical mechanisms and biomarkers in mental diseases using brain imaging. These multidisciplinary centers provide the community with unique infrastructure and training capabilities, and an optimum environment to translate scientific insights into the clinics. His work on neuroimaging biomarkers in psychiatry including dissociative stated has been published in some of the top journals in the field. He has secured 30 team and individual grants over the past 7yrs, including CIHR grants, a large CFI as lead of the human imaging component, and a China Excellence Program on multilevel approaches for diagnosis/therapy of depression. As the NPA, Dr. Northoff fulfills the scientific and management responsibilities and will deliver on the secondary outcome measures related to the correlation of neuroimaging biomarkers in PTSD for the Ottawa hub.