Einstein Questionnaire

Marcel Brass


How do you explain your research to non-specialists?

One focus of my research is how we interact successfully with our social environment. This involves the general mechanisms that underlie our social behavior. These general mechanisms include, for example, our ability to infer what is going on in other people's minds. It is also about how we coordinate our behavior with others when we solve tasks together. Finally, I also look at how people behave in groups. Why do we adapt our behavior to the behavior of the group? To investigate these questions, I conduct psychological experiments, studying both the behavior of the subjects and what happens in their brains when they participate in the experiments.


If your research were a work of art, what would it look like?

It would probably be an abstract sculpture. What it looks like would be less important to me than what it does to the viewer.


Is there an unusual object that accompanies you in your work or everyday life?

There is a series of collages made for me by a Belgian artist friend (Paul Schietekat) that have been hanging in my office for more than a decade (first in Ghent and now in Berlin). They are so-called "brain art", in which the brain is depicted in an unusual context. The first painting in this series is the IQ Burger.


Speaking of science communication, what research topics do you think deserve more (media) attention?

I think the pandemic has shown how distorted the public image of science is. The general perception seems to be that science holds undeniable truths. As a scientist, you know that this is rarely the case. Also, there are usually different opinions on a topic. It would be good to communicate more strongly that science is a process that generates knowledge through the competition of opinions. 


Imagine getting into a time machine and traveling 100 years into the future. How do you think your discipline will have evolved?

I find it difficult to make a prediction over such a long period of time. I think the only thing that is certain is that a hundred years from now we will have a better idea of how rudimentary our knowledge of how the human brain works is today. We have made a lot of progress in understanding brain function in the last few decades. However, we are still at the beginning of this development. Technological advances will allow us both to better understand brain function and to create complex models of that function. 


What advice would you give to students and young scientists?

I try to share my fascination with research with the students and young scientists I work with. Working in science can be a privilege because you can work independently and creatively to a very high degree. However, it can also be very frustrating because it often takes a long time to see the results of your work. In my opinion, the best motivation for a scientific career is the intrinsic motivation to do research. There are also many different ways to be successful in science. You should not compare yourself with others.


What would you be today if you hadn't become a scientist?

I don't know. I think that a lot of career choices and career planning depend on chance. It would probably be easier to say what I definitely would not have become.


Is there a special hobby or talent you would like to tell us about?

I like to play billiards, but I am only moderately good at it. For me, this game represents a number of things that I am also interested in scientifically. It seems that billiards is mainly a game governed by physics. You can calculate exactly how you have to play the ball to get it into the pocket. In fact, billiards is very much a game of intuition and psychology. How the ball actually travels depends on boundary conditions, such as the quality of the table surface or the elasticity of the cushions. Conditions that are not "calculated" but "felt".  Psychology also plays an important role, as self-efficacy expectations (the expectation that the next shot will be successful) often determine how well you play. Will I make the next shot? But social aspects also play an important role.


Which place in Berlin do you find particularly exciting or inspiring for your research? What surprises you about the city?

The humor of the Berliners always surprises me. Although I grew up in Berlin, after almost 25 years of absence I have forgotten how entertainingly amusing and unfriendly the people of this city can be.


How did you experience the lockdown? Were you able to get anything positive out of it?

The lockdown definitely had some positive aspects for me. Since I still have a working group in Ghent, I was able to practice interacting online. However, it also showed that it is not easy to set up a working group during a lockdown. The scientific community has learned that many things can be done online. This will certainly change scientific communication in the long term. Especially internationally, many a flight across Europe will be replaced by a Zoom meeting. But the lockdown has also shown me how important direct social interaction with my working group and colleagues is, and how important informal conversations in the corridor or after a meeting are. For a scientist who wants to understand social intelligence, these are of course very important insights.


July 2021