Psychology and cognitive neuroscience traditionally show a tenacious reoccupation with isolated functions and brain areas. We study memory, language, impulse control, the hippocampus, Wernicke’s area, and the anterior cingulate cortex. This analytical tradition has clearly proven its use: we can now answer a question like “how many numbers can a person keep in mind”, or “which brain areas work harder when more numbers are being stored in mind”. However, functions seldom operate in isolation: the reason someone keeps numbers in mind, rather than doing something else entirely, may be because we had them read instructions – requiring language – and ask them to concentrate – requiring executive control. The brain has 86 billions of neurons with 100 trillion connections between them, so it’s clearly, fundamentally interconnected. My research takes the holistic aim and focuses on the interplay between cognitive functions, brain areas, and individual people.
Of course, we are all interdisciplinary nowadays, grantwinningly so, and examples are better than business lingo. Let’s avoid the wishy-washiness and allow me to summarize what I have been up to thus far:
• My PhD thesis (Leiden, NL) was on the relationship between working memory and cognitive control. Put simply, if you’re in a situation that requires impulse control (you’re hungry and see a McD’s), you’re more likely to restrain yourself if you are reminded of an earlier, similar situation (another McD’s) rather than a dissimilar one (a Pizza Hut). Instead of snack food chains, however, we used executive control tasks, like the Stroop coloured words one made famous with today’s “Brain Training” games.
• I held a post-doc position in Nottingham (UK) on motor control, studying the relation between cortical areas, handedness and functional connectivity between cortical areas as quantified using EEG.
• Currently, I’m a post-doc at the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT (Finland), where I am studying the social neuroscience of mediated interaction. A large part of this concerns the degree to which our feelings towards a person we interact determines how we perceive emotional events. To investigate this, we generally try to enhance the link between a message and the messenger: a touch from someone who has been consistently friendly is perceived different from one who has not been.
In these various locations, I worked on/with:
• Executive and motor control tasks to reveal the interplay between memory, automaticity and voluntary control.
• Various priming tasks, for example to find out if a left-handed person is more easily, subliminally provoked to respond to the left.
• Object tracking tasks: to find out if we can track multiple visual objects across both perception and action.
• Rapid serial visual presentation / oddball paradigms: to test the attentional blink and relevance perception.
• Behavioral economics to quantify effects of touch and emotions on decision making.
• Problem solving tasks to investigate effects of emotion (mood) on creativity.
• Psychophysics to quantify limits of time and touch perception.
• Psycholinguistics; in particular in relation with semantic priming and word relevance.
• EEG/MEG: mainly ERPs, but sometimes spectral measurements (and a rare case of MEG).
• BCI/HCI: practical applications from psycholinguistics by designing search recommendations using EEG relevance detection. I sometimes contribute to user experience studies.
• Hyperscanning, intersubjective connectivity or (my preference) linkage: the effect that people who communicate start to synchronize actions, emotions and brainwaves.
• Peripheral psychophysiology such as fEMG, EDA, ECG.
• Eye tracking: eye-movements, blinks, and pupil diameter can reveal interest and much more.
• Fun technology like virtual reality and haptic gloves to find out whether an expressed emotion affects somatosensory processing (submitted).
In other words, my favourite research topics are consciousness, perception/action, emotion and touch. I like to test these things in innovative ways by combining psychology with cognitive neuroscience and technical gadgets.