Building Bridges Through Neuroscience

At a summer school designed to bring together students from across the Middle East and elsewhere, participants find common ground in science and beyond.

The Neurobridges course meets in Cluny, France. Ahmed El Hady

It all began with a hike on a sunny afternoon in Ein Gedi, a beautiful kibbutz in Israel, back in 2014. Looking out over the sandy hills with friend and fellow neuroscientist Yonatan Loewenstein, I thought about the fact that it was only through science that I was able to get to know Israel. Yonatan and I both grew up in the Middle East, well aware of the grim reality that many face in the region. We wondered what we could do as scientists to make things a little bit better. We thought that neuroscience, which transcends national origin, religion and ethnicity, could help us build bridges in addition to aiding in our quest to understand the brain.

Over the course of several months, we formed a plan to bring scientists from the region together, which we called the NeuroBridges Initiative. The first two events took place in Göttingen, Germany, in July 2014, and in Paris in September 2015. Each of these three-day events brought together 20 young speakers — Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians and Israelis — as well as several speakers from the hosting countries, including Nobel Laureate Erwin Neher, who opened NeuroBridges in 2014.

Building on the huge success of these workshops, we decided the next step would be to train the next generation of scientists. We expanded NeuroBridges into an annual summer school that brought together students and postdocs from the Middle East and the Mediterranean region, including Egypt, Iran, Israel, Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and Turkey, as well as China, Europe and the United States. The most recent school, NeuroBridges 2022, met in Cluny, France, where students were able to learn about state-of-the-art approaches in the field while enjoying wine from the Bourgogne region.

NeuroBridges is very different from any other schools I have organized or at which I have taught. Seeing the moment when students from Arab countries, Iran and Israel meet for the first time is unmatched. Gathering students from across the globe is a bureaucratic challenge — securing visas, chasing travel agencies and making sure participants find their way — but the challenge is worth it. The flow of conversation and cultural exchange is amazing to witness. “I feel like a travel agency, but it is all for peace,” says David Hansel, one of my co-organizers. “I love it.”

We structured the school in a way to give students, faculty and teaching assistants ample time to interact, discuss and develop ideas, with a mix of lectures, tutorials and projects. The students work on projects together, present papers together and learn together, fostering collaborations that could not be realized without NeuroBridges. We are able to attract high-profile faculty from around the world. Indeed, I often get emails from neuroscience faculty asking when they will be invited to come teach there. It warms my heart that many are willing to contribute to both the science and the cause of peace and diversity.

The content of the course focuses on decision-making, a topic that has brought a breadth of speakers: from Michael Shadlen, who took us on a journey from perceptual decision-making to consciousness; to Yoram Yovell, who advocated that psychoanalysis should take part in rigorous neuroscience research; to Eyal Winter, who gave us advice on how to optimize our financial decision-making. Varied scientific material, as well as diverse students and teaching assistants, made the school a unique melting pot. Our final student presentations included a molecular biologist who presented work on financial decision-making and a computer scientist who explored why basketball players believe they are more likely to hit a shot after a hit than a miss.

The magic of NeuroBridges lasts beyond the course itself. After every session, I get emotional messages from students expressing how the experience has impacted them both professionally and personally. “I did not imagine as a Lebanese I could hang out and enjoy a jazz evening with an Israeli,” one student wrote. “We were able to talk about our ambitions in life and never brought up the ugly war … I am hopeful, thank you for this great opportunity.”

Ahmed El Hady is a principal investigator at the Center for Advanced study of Collective Behavior, University of Konstanz.

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