Georg B. Keller


April 17, 2014

Georg Keller receives highly sought-after career development award

Georg Keller, a Junior group leader at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, has received a Career Development Award (CDA) from the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP). This highly sought-after award enables former HFSP Fellows to initiate an original research program in their own laboratory, either in their home country or in another HFSP member country. With his newly established independent research group, Georg Keller is studying how we process sensory information in the brain.

Q: You and your group are interested in the key principles underlying sensory processing in the visual cortex and, in particular, how our perception is based on predictions and the detection of deviations from these predictions. Can you explain what this means?
What we perceive is greatly influenced by what we expect. Anyone who has mistaken a wine glass for a water glass while engrossed in conversation can attest to the intense experience of taste expectations being violated. Similar expectations are also prevalent in the visual system. When we expect to see something, we are more likely to see it, and when we don’t expect to see something – or expect to see it somewhere else – we can actually fail to perceive it. If you’ve ever hunted for your keys, thinking you’ve mislaid them, only to find them right in the middle of your desk, then you know the feeling of looking for something that is right in front of your eyes. What we perceive is not only modulated by expectations but is also strongly experience dependent. If you have never seen the Dalmatian drinking from a puddle in the snow in Richard Gregory’s famous photograph to the left, it will probably take you a while to find it – but if you have seen it, you cannot not see it. All of these effects are manifestations of our expectations and experience influencing what we perceive, and it’s this interaction between expectations and sensory information that we are studying.

Q: What is it about sensory processing that captures your imagination?
Perception has always fascinated philosophers and scientists alike. This is not simply because we are often misled by our senses. Perception and (sensory) deception share more than a common etymology – sensory illusions have always been intriguing clues in our endeavor to understand the mechanisms of perception. Perception is at the core of our interaction with the world. So it is not surprising that sensory representation was one of the first questions to be tackled over a hundred years ago in the early days of neuroscience. However, it’s only been in recent years that we’ve had the means to address the fundamental question of how the brain processes sensory information during active perception. Using in vivo imaging methods combined with virtual reality environments, we can now attempt to answer the question of the neurobiological foundations of active perception. Active perception, as a comparison between an internal representation of the world and sensory information, is probably one of the fundamental computations performed by the brain.

Q: What about the future? What do you wish for?
We’ve only just begun to understand that, as far as perception is concerned, passively experiencing and actively exploring are fundamentally different processes. How the brain interactively learns what to expect, and how this influences perception, is what we hope to address in the future. Our main focus will be on understanding the functional, anatomical and molecular basis of this process.

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