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Showcase January 2015: Vespucci Institute 2014: Brain and Space

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Vespucci Institute 2014: Brain and Space

Victor Schinazi

ETH Zürich

Only a month before the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser “for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain”1, another group of scientists were gathered in Lisbon for the 2014 Vespucci Institute on Brain and Space. Unlike its predecessors that focused on topics in geography and geoinformatics, the 2014 Vespucci Institute focused on how the mammalian brain supports spatial cognition and navigation. This was an unprecedented move for a conference in geography and one that addressed a disconcerting lacuna in the spatial cognition branch of neuroscience. Indeed, despite years of groundbreaking findings, a true interdisciplinary meeting that attempted to bridge the gap between different species, computational models and artificial agents was still lacking. It was with this in mind that the organizers of the Brain and Space meeting invited scientists from different fields for five days to discuss current and emerging views with an attempt to develop overarching frameworks on spatial cognition and navigation.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Participants of the 2014 Vespucci Institute on Brain and Space (photo courtesy of Jeff Taube).

The conference was organized around four themes:

  • ♦ Neural computations of space: Spatial updating, path integration and landmark navigation
  • ♦ Fragmentation of space: Hierarchical representations, scales of space, parietal contributions to spatial memory
  • ♦ Goal representations, navigational planning, and predictive coding
  • ♦ Development of navigational functions across the lifespan

Vespucci conferences are often regarded as elite meetings in the field of geography and this was not different this time around. The meeting was a relatively intimate affair with only 39 invitees arriving from variety of countries around the world. The conference took place at the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown, a state-of-the-art science and technology facility known for its risqué architecture, and located where the River Tejo meets the Atlantic Ocean – once the point of departure of the famous Portuguese sea explorers. The meeting followed the “unconference” spirit of Vespucci Institutes. Participants were encouraged to interact and discuss rather than showcase their latest findings in power point style presentations.

Figure 2
Figure 2. The Champalimaud Center for the Unknown (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)2.

The conference started with brief description of the goals and objectives for the week. This was followed by self-introductions and expectations by all participants. The organizers then presented a series of short talks on the current state and the future of the field from various perspectives. Participants and organizers were divided into four groups that included a mélange of experts from the animal, human and computational sides of neuroscience as well as geographers and cognitive psychologists. These groups defined the character of the meeting for the following days and provided in many ways the camaraderie and depth of discussion that is common to Vespucci Institutes. A typical Vespucci day consisted of an introductory presentation given by the chairs of one of the groups. These presentations were accompanied by lightning talks in which the various group participants had a chance to give short presentations and discuss their own work. These discussions usually carried on until the end of the afternoon when the different groups left the conference venue to continue their chats in smaller groups over food and drinks.

On the third day of the conference, participants had a chance to leave the (windowless) Champalimaud room and continue their conversation together with a guided tour of the Alfama district – the oldest district in Lisbon and the birthplace of the Portuguese Fado music genre. The conference concluded with short presentations by Professors Wolbers and Taube who discussed some of the challenges, opportunities of novel methodologies including a lively debate on the role and potential applications of virtual reality technology.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Alfama panorama with view of the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora (photo by Victor Schinazi).

In general, the conference was a great success with several of the attendees remarking the strong intellectual content and depth of discussions. There is, however, always room for improvement. Regarding the Vespucci “unconference” model, it is safe to say that it worked for most of the time but not always. While this is an upgrade from the typical parallel track conference, future multidisciplinary Vespucci meetings still need to find the right balance between depth, breadth, structure and freeform. This was particularly the case for some of the geographers, who despite being familiar to the Vespucci family and spatial scientists par excellence needed to work especially hard to keep up with some of the more detailed discussion. Perhaps future meetings will include more “bridge builders”, to help clarify conceptual and semantic issues and suggest ways to link the work from different scales and species. Despite these shortcomings, the Brain and Space meeting allowed for scientists from different fields to meet and make new contacts, reconcile some of the findings from the human and animal sides, discuss novel methodologies and clarify a couple of myths about what geography is and what geographers actually do. Although junior scientists were somewhat underrepresented, those that were present benefited from the Vespucci intimate style and were able to spend some quality time and engage with the more senior names in their field.

The 2014 Nobel Prize brought much-deserved recognition to the spatial branch of neuroscience. Place cells and grid cells are certainly two key components of the brain’s GPS system. Yet, as evident from last years Brain and Space Institute in Lisbon, a variety of open questions remain unanswered (after all, what sort of brain GPS does not rely on head direction cells?). Some of these questions can probably benefit when addressed within an interdisciplinary umbrella. The 2014 Vespucci meeting was an effort by geographers to raise some of these issues and open them to various perspectives. It is now the turn for the neuroscientists to pick up this starting thread and develop their own strand of conferences to continue this tradition.

The 2014 Vespucci Institute on Brain and Space was organized by Thomas Wolbers (German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases), Jeff Taube (Dartmouth College), Ila Fiete (U Texas at Austin) and Victor Schinazi (ETH Zürich). The meeting would not be a reality without the multidisciplinary spirit of the Vespucci godfathers Werner Kuhn (University of California, Santa Barbara) and Michael Gould (ESRI). A special thank you is also due to Alfonso O’Neill and António Câmara (yDreams) for the organization and coordination of the events in Lisbon.

To find out more about the Vespucci Initiative and the 2014 Brain and Space Vespucci Institute please visit the Vespucci webpage. A list of the Vespucci Institute on Brain and Space participants can be found below.

Neil Burgess (University College London)

Ford Burles (University of Calgary)

Benjamin Clark (University of New Mexico)

Kathleen Cullen (McGill University)

Clare Davies (University of Winchester)

Dori Derdikman (Technion)

David Dickman (Baylor College of Medicine)

Paul Dudchenko (University of Stirling)

Russell Epstein (University of Pennsylvania)

Sara Fabrikant (University of Zürich)

Ila Fiete (University of Texas at Austin)

David Foster (Johns Hopkins University)

Christian Freksa (University of Bremen)

Michael Gould (ESRI)

Derek Hamilton (University of New Mexico)

Lorelei Howard (DZNE)

Giuseppe Iaria (University of Calgary)

Kate Jeffrey (University College London)

Werner Kuhn (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Panagiotis Mavros (University College London)

Mayank Mehta (UCLA)

Scott Moffat (Georgia Tech)



  1. "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2014". Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 26 Dec 2014.
  2. By Carlos Luis M C da Cruz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.
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