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Michael Bach – scepticism: an important part of being a scientist

Prof. Dr. Michael Bach, from the University Eye Hospital in Freiburg, calls scepticism one of his major hobbies. His scepticism developed in the 1970s and 1980s through his contact with researchers at the former Freiburg Institute of Parapsychology and it is now an integral part of his work into functional vision research and the way he deals with everyday phenomena. "Good scientists have to question everything, sometimes even their own perception," said Bach.

Prof. Dr. Michael Bach (Photo: private)
Not everything we see is really there. Optical illusions are a perfect example of this and many of them have been the subject of scientific examination. Circles that actually stand still seem to rotate. Walking silhouettes of people are actually only a few spots that move simultaneously. Our brain turns objective facts into subjective reality and it is difficult to find out what is real and what is not. Optical illusions are a major area of research of Prof. Dr. Michael Bach and provide him with exciting insights into vision. The optical illusions serve as a reminder to Bach that doubts about one’s own perception are an important part of science.

Looking into “things transcendental”

Bach, born in Berlin in 1950, has always been interested in the natural sciences. He used to have a chemistry laboratory in his family’s cellar and assemble electronic devices, like many young people who would later become scientists. However, the early enthusiasm left more than just the seeds of his future career: “The apparatus I used to produce tear gas leaked which made me immune to this gas,” claims Bach, who always wanted to become physicist. His studies began in 1970 when he studied physics in Bochum. He graduated in 1977. As a physicist he was able to choose any scientific direction that he wanted. In 1978, he moved to Freiburg and did a doctorate in the field of brain research and sensory physiology.
One of the reasons why Bach came to Freiburg was the former Institute of Parapsychology (now the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health) where research focused on transcendental phenomena. “Of course, there are no ghosts and telekinesis does not exist either,” said the 58-year-old. “I try to find a rational explanation for any seemingly supernatural phenomena. And the parapsychologists in Freiburg did the same.” His inclination to scepticism thus fell on fertile ground and was able to grow. At that time, Bach developed an interest in optical illusions. Working together with a doctoral student from the Institute of Parapsychology, Bach came up with a project that still occupies his scientific mind: the Necker cube. The Necker cube is a wire-frame drawing of a cube in isometric perspective that makes the picture ambiguous. When two lines cross, it is difficult to see which of the two lines is in front and which is behind. “At that time, we used electrophysiological methods to examine what happens in the brain of a person that flips between the two interpretations,” said Bach. Bach and his team have, in the meantime, been able to show that this type of perception does not only involve the higher levels of the brain as previously assumed, but also the processes occurring at earlier steps of sensory processing.
The Necker cube seems to flip between different depth orientations.
The Necker cube seems to flip between different depth orientations. (Figures: Prof. Dr. Michael Bach)

Fertile self-doubts

After his doctorate Bach accepted a post in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University Eye Hospital and became director of Electrophysiology in 1983. Bach has always been interested in working with researchers from other disciplines, so this was a natural move for him. He did not want to, as many researchers do, accept a postdoc position in the USA. “At that time, I did not think that I was as bright as the other scientists,” said Bach explaining his decision. Did he have self-doubts? He often had the same feeling when attending conferences and always thought the other research groups were better than his. But then he realised that it was this methodical scepticism in his own work which finally led to reliable results. “That is what makes a scientist excellent. Such scientists repeatedly question their results and continue with experiments to substantiate the results and eliminate the slightest doubts.”
Since 1993, Bach has been professor and head of the Section of Functional Vision Research and Electrophysiology at the Eye Hospital. Today, Bach is well aware of the fact that science is full of failures. Because his early work about the Necker tube was repeatedly rejected by psychological journals, he began to carry out numerous controls to ascertain the results. And he also distrusts the scientific ‘business’ that only gives money to projects that promise quick success. “Somebody who spends eight years on developing a method to a degree that it works, has a hard life,” said Bach. “But some things just take that long.”

Against the self-deception of the brain

At a workshop, Prof. Dr. Michael Bach shows how the activity of the optical area of the brain can be measured upon visual stimulation. (Photo: private)
Nowadays, Bach no longer has problems with his own success; he has published more than 170 articles and written about 20 chapters in textbooks. He has also been the President of the “International Society for Clinical Electrophysiology of Vision” for five years now. However, he still does not regard himself as one of the best. “I believe that there are better people,” said Bach, also trying to be objective when assessing his own scientific achievements. “But I do solid science”. He has spent the last 20 years researching optical illusions and the pathological disturbances of visual perception. For example, he has been working on the development of an electrophysiological method with which doctors can identify the early stages of cataract development. This eye disease is the result of high intraocular pressure that gradually leads to the death of nerve cells in the eye. People developing a clouding of the lens usually realise the obstruction when it is too late. This is also due to an optical illusion. Upon the failure of certain areas of the visual field, the brain just fills in perceptions and creates the subjective impression of normal eyesight.
But it is better to be careful. Bach and his colleagues therefore measure the electrical activity of nerve cells to determine whether these are still intact. “This is a purely objective method,” said Bach. This method might in future enable doctors to discover the early signs of the disease and thus potentially prevent many cataract sufferers from going blind.

mn – 28 July 2008
© BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH
Further information:
Prof. Dr. Michael Bach
University Eye Hospital
University of Freiburg
Killianstr. 5
79106 Freiburg
Tel.: +49 (761)/270-4061
E-mail: michael.bach@uni-freiburg.de
Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/michael-bach-scepticism-an-important-part-of-being-a-scientist