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Behaviour: From Neural Mechanisms to Evolution

Brains belong to the most complex systems in nature. They control perception, cognition and eventually the behaviour of animals and humans. Understanding the mechanisms that allow animals and humans to behave adaptively in complex environments is one of the most fascinating, but also most challenging tasks in science.

The graduate programme "Behaviour: From Neural Mechanisms to Evolution" provides the relevant interdisciplinary scientific training for a comprehensive education. It introduces concepts, fundamental experimental techniques, and the theoretical approaches that are required to perform research at the frontiers of this ambitious scientific field.

The graduate programme will comprise both a Master's programme and a PhD programme. Excellent students may change directly to the doctoral programme after the successful completion of their first year of studies.

The study programme aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the fundamental principles underlying autonomous adaptive behaviour of animals and humans. Brain morphology and function, including learning ability as well as innate behaviours in humans and animals have been shaped by evolution.

Our study programme bridges the gap from neurophysiology to behavioral ecology. It includes courses on the production of behaviour by neuronal circuits as well as courses on the evolution of behaviour.

As a distinguishing characteristic, this study programme integrates computational and experimental approaches and focuses on the neuronal as well as on the evolutionary aspects of behaviour.

  • Computational Aspect: Behaviour is the result of computations performed by the nervous system of the organism at all relevant levels of complexity. These comprise the cellular and network level as well as the cognitive and behavioural performance of the entire system.
  • Evolutionary Aspect: Brain function and behaviour emerge from the developmental and everyday interactions of the organism with its environment. They have been shaped by selection during the course of evolution.

Although the interdisciplinary study programme is centred in the Faculty of Biology, a selection of curricular modules may also be selected from other fields such as Psychology, Computer Science, Robotics or Linguistics.

The courses are organised in semesters, starting Oct. 1st and April 1st. 30 credit points (ECTS) have to be earned in each semester.

1st/2nd Semester

Throughout the first year, basic concepts and current topics of mechanisms and evolution of brain and behaviour are taught in a comprehensive study programme. This combines in all modules both seminars and lectures with lab courses and small scientific projects. Emphasis during the first year is put on individual tutoring and intensive training in small groups.

Master modules (A - F)

The Master modules combine both seminars and lectures with lab courses and scientific projects. Current topics of the six master modules are:

A - Probing Behaviour
B - Neural Mechanisms of Behaviour
C - Control of Behaviour
D - Perception and Action
E - Evolution of Behaviour
F - Function of Behaviour

3rd/4th Semester

In the second year students select a supplementary module and will carry out - in research modules - independent projects in two of the participating research groups. These projects will eventually lead to the six- month Master's thesis project. Students are encouraged to use the supplementary module (and potentially one of the research modules) to do a project in a cooperative international research institution. All students of the study programme participate in a weekly seminar series where the results of the various research projects are presented and discussed. Special emphasis is also given to scientific writing and oral presentation skills. Seminar talks by internationally renowned scientists from other institutions further extend the scope of the study programme.

Supplementary module

Research modules A+B

Master's thesis

The Master's thesis project comprises original and independent research in the field of current research of one of the groups participating in the MSc programme. The research projects are accompanied by training in scientific writing and oral presentation skills. The Master's thesis will be written in the format of international scientific journals. (30 ECTS)

Data Acquisition, Analysis, and Presentation

The complexity of behaviour and the underlying neuronal processes is enchantingly rich. This richness is reflected in the broad range of analytical methodologies applied to biological data in our endeavor of elucidating this complexity. With respect of our Master program, the topics cover ranges from the theoretical modeling of evolutionary processes to quantitative behavioral analysis in various model systems and the studies of neuronal networks.

The first module within the Master program aims at providing students with an overview to this variety, with a special focus on learning and mastering the broad range of skills and techniques needed to successfully approach this complexity. Using theoretical and practical examples of topics fundamental to the research of the faculty involved in the master program, students are introduced to programming in Matlab®. In doing so, we introduce fundamental concepts of signal analysis (e.g., filtering signals, Fourier transforms, convolution, spike-train analysis, trajectory analysis, ROC analysis and statistical foundations) and approaches to experimental designs and data acquisition (extracellular recordings, psychophysical experiments). In addition to these analytical skills, problems in designing experiments, bibliographic research and the art of scientific-writing and presentation of scientific data are covered and practiced in this module.

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Brains are believed to belong to the most complex structures in the universe. They consist of densely packed and intricately interconnected networks of neurons, each of which has already highly complex computational properties.
With their neuronal machinery even relatively small animals are able to deal successfully with extraordinary tasks - as least if judged by the performance of man-made artifical systems. In preparation that are accessible relatively easily to experimental approaches (such as semi-intact insects) fundamental issues of neuronal information processing in nerve cells, at synaptic connections and neuronal networks will be addressed by electrophysiological and pharmacological experiments using intra- and extracellular recording techniques. Modern computer-based approaches will be introduced to analyse the experimental data. The experimental analysis will be completed by model simulations based on special software packages to validate experimentally established hypotheses and to assess the functional consequences of the cellular properties. The different projects will be conducted in small groups. Topical papers in the field of cellular information processing and neuronal computation will be discussed in seminars.

Animals adapt their behaviour according to the requirements of the current situation. A wide range of sensory organs supply the animal's nervous system with information about the immediate environment (external cues), but also about the current state of the body (internal cues). Depending on both, external and internal cues, the nervous system switches, modulates or sustains the pattern of activity in its output organs - muscles and glands - in order to change the current behaviour or to maintain it. A change in output causes a concurrent change in sensory input, thus closing the loop from the output to the input. The module "Control of Behaviour" addresses different aspects of control loops, ranging from unconscious control of homeostasis and reflexive movements to orientation, course control and the coordination of complex movement sequences. The first part of the module gives an introduction to the basic theory and experimental analysis of feed-back systems (e.g., dynamic properties and stability), using simple examples of animal physiology and neurobiology. The second part is devoted to modelling the neural control of animal movement, with emphasis on the application of Artificial Neural Networks. During the third part, we offer small project experiments, addressing various specific aspects of sensory control of individual joints, limbs (i.e., chains with several joints) or whole bodies (i.e., coordination of multiple limbs).

Suggested Reading:

  • Biewener, A. A. (2003) Animal Locomotion. Oxford University Press.
  • Cruse, H (2008) Neural networks as cybernetic systems. 3rd ed., Brains, Minds & Media; ebook:
© Universität Bielefeld

This module is an introduction into current research topics of Cognitive Neuroscience. First there will be an overview about different experimental methods used in Cognitive Neuroscience research. In small groups the students will then learn to develop their own scientific questions about the neural processing mechanisms underlying cognitive processes. Thereby, one focus will be on human multisensory perception and the interaction of perception and action sequences. Higher cognitive functions, such as learning, attention and navigation/orientation will play a central role. Next to the theoretical introduction, a predominant part of the course will be on receiving hands on experience with Cognitive Neuroscience topics. To this end, scientific questions will be approached experimentally and the results received will be quantitatively analyzed. In addition to the thematic introduction into the field of cognitive neuroscience, one of the main objectives of this module is to learn about the entire scientific process, from the development of the scientific question, the conduction of well-controlled cognitive experiments, all the way to the the presentation of the results in written or oral form.

This course concentrates on how to study the evolution and maintenance of animal behaviour. It has the following components: In the first introductory part the participants attend lectures on the basic mechanisms of evolution and get suggestions for small research projects using insects. In the second part that will take place during an excursion to Greece, the students will work in small groups on the projects they have selected. In the third part the received data have to be analysed and on the last day all participants will give oral presentations of their projects. In addition, all participants have to write reports in the form of scientific publications.

The aim of this course is to become familiar with concepts and methods used to study animal behaviour, specifically behavioural ecology. Basic principles will be theoretically presented and exemplified by research projects, mostly on small mammals, birds and fish. These experiments serve to obtain experience in asking precise questions on the causation and function of behaviour and to teach experimental design. Experiments on the proximate aspect of behaviour deal mainly with different aspects of communication. Examples are the role of acoustic and visual stimuli in courtship behaviour and partner choice. Ultimate aspects deal, for example, with distribution in space, the study of personality features and phylogenetic and molecular analysis of behaviour. Seminars serve to discuss current ideas based on the study of recent literature.

Applicants must hold a Bachelor's degree (or equivalent) in a field related to the Master's programme Behaviour: From Neural Mechanisms to Evolution. Fluency in English is required. Applications can be submitted between 1 June and 15 July of every year via the university's application portal international students are particularly encouraged to apply early.

Please note that the deadlines may change due to uncertainties regarding the Covid-19 pandemic; for current information on deadlines please see

For your online application the following documents are required:

  • certified copy of Bachelor's certificate (or any equivalent degree)
  • letter of motivation for applying for the MSc programme Behaviour: From Neural Mechanisms to Evolution (maximum 1500 words) answering the following questions:
    1) What are your main reasons to apply for the MSc programme Behaviour: From Neural Mechanisms to Evolution at Bielefeld University?
    2) What are your main expectations towards this MSc programme?
    3) Which relevant expertise and experience do you have for this Msc programme? Consider any scientific or academic expertise/experience and explain how this qualifies you for this course.
    4) Which of the fields covered by the MSc programme are you most interested in?
    5) In which research fields and with which qualitiative and/or quantitative research methods do you have practical experience?
    6) Why do you apply for an international MSc programme?
    7) Would you like to make any additional remark?
  • tabular CV listing the activities and experiences relevant for the studies
  • summary of Bachelor thesis
  • evidence of English language skills (e.g. English as first language; first degree has been obtained at an English-speaking institution); TOEFL test (paper-based: TOEFL®ITP with a score record of at least 543; internet-based: TOEFL iBT® with a score record of at least 87), IELTS (International English Language Testing System) with an overall band score of at least 5.5 or any other equivalent test (level B2 according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).

International students: Working knowledge of German is necessary for daily private activities; German courses are strongly recommended.

Furthermore, international students from countries not belonging to the European Union or the European Economic Area are requested to take the following entry requirements into consideration: DAAD - Visa / Entry into the country

Students may apply before receiving their Bachelor degree. In this case, they are required to submit certified copies of certificates and a transcript of records of their previous studies; admission may be granted subject to the successful completion of the first degree before the beginning of the MSc programme.

Candidates are selected based on their academic qualification, the evaluation of the letter of motivation, and a personal interview (if applicable).

For more details please see the Subject-specific Regulations for the Master Programme Behaviour: From Neural Mechanisms to Evolution" German Version or English version

For more general information see

Applications have to be sent in between June 1 and July 15. All applications must be entered into the online applicaton portal "move-in" of Bielefeld University by July 15 (see below). Applicants without a German Abitur (university entrance qualification) or any German degree should not just complete the online application, but additionally send their applications by post to the

Bielefeld University
Registrar´s Office
Universitätsstraße 25
D-33615 Bielefeld

Application & Enrolment
(English or German version)

Bielefeld University Online Application Portal:

Further Information:

Prof. Dr. Volker Dürr
Biological Cybernetics
Fakultät für Biologie
Universität Bielefeld
Postfach 10 01 31
D-33501 Bielefeld

The international graduate programme "Behaviour: From Neural Mechanisms to Evolution" is centred in Biology. However, a selection of curricular modules may also be selected from related fields such as Psychology, Computer Science, Robotics or Linguistics.

Alphabetical listing of faculty in biology

  • Böddeker, Norbert, Dr. (Cognitive Neuroscience)
  • Caspers, Barbara, Prof. Dr. (Behavioural Ecology)
  • Dürr, Volker, Prof. Dr. (Biological Cybernetics)
  • Egelhaaf, Martin, Prof. Dr. (Neurobiology)
  • Engelmann, Jacob, Prof. Dr. (Active Sensing)
  • Kayser, Christoph, Prof. Dr. (Cognitive Neuroscience)
  • Kern, Roland, Dr. (Neurobiology)
  • Krüger, Oliver, Prof. Dr. (Animal Behaviour)
  • Lindemann, Jens Peter, Dr. (Neurobiology)
  • Reinhold, Klaus, Prof. Dr. (Evolutionary Biology)
  • Strube-Bloss, Martin, Dr. (Biological Cybernetics)

  • DAAD

    Degree programme on the "German Academic Exchange Service" website

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