Core Research Areas

The laboratories at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience (CCN) investigate fundamental questions in cognitive neuroscience using a variety of methods, from single-cell recordings in monkeys to neuroimaging in healthy and cognitively impaired populations. CCN labs investigate most kinds of cognitive and affective functions, with an emphasis on four main domains: (1) perception and attention, (2) executive control, (3) memory, and (4) emotion, motivation, and valuation.

1. Perception and Attention

Perception allows us to learn about the world around us and provides the building blocks of cognition. CCN researchers focus on the sensory modalities most critical to humans, vision and audition, from low level sensory processing to higher-level object recognition. Perception depends on attentional operations that filter incoming sensory information and modulate perceptual processing. These are a few examples of the perception and attention questions investigated by core CCN faculty:

  • How do we find objects and sounds in the environment? (Groh, Madden, and Woldorff labs)
  • What are the acoustic building blocks of audition? (Overath lab)
  • What is the nature of visual and auditory representations? (Groh and Overath labs)
  • How does a stimulus’ relevance and probability affect its perceptual processing? (Egner and Woldorff labs) 
  • How do we perceive speech and music? (Overath and Purves labs)
  • How does the brain process multi-sensory information? (Groh and Woldorff labs)
  • How does evolution and past experiences explain what we see and hear? (Purves lab)
  • How do salient stimuli capture bottom-up attention? (Egner and Madden labs)
  • How do predictability and unpredictability capture attention? (Adcock and Egner labs)
  • How does current processing influence future sensory decisions? (Sommer lab)
  • How do object features shape eye movements and object-related decisions? (Huettel lab)

2. Executive Control

With the exception of a few overlearned actions, such as stopping at a red light, most human behavior is guided by goals and modified to fit the current context. This type of flexible behavior relies on control processes dependent on prefrontal and parietal regions. These control processes are critical for most cognitive functions, including attention, emotion, memory, and decision making. Below are some of the executive control questions investigated by core CCN faculty:

  • How does our brain resolve conflicting stimulus representations? (Egner, Woldorff, and Madden labs)
  • What cognitive-control brain mechanisms underlie the allocation of attention? (Woldorff lab)
  • How do we learn to match contextual cues to appropriate control states? (Egner lab)
  • How do humans and animals control our emotional reactions? (LaBar, Egner, and Hare labs)
  • How do humans and monkeys use short-cuts during decision making? (Sommer and Egner lab)
  • How does our brain make risky decisions? (Huettel lab)
  • What control mechanisms allow us to achieve social goals? (Huettel lab)
  • How can control mechanisms be explained using Bayesian models? (Heller and Egner labs)
  • Do non-human primates use human-like decision making processes? (Hare lab)
  • What attentional and control mechanisms mediate moral judgments? (Sinnott-Armstrong lab)
  • How do impaired control processes lead to psychopathy? (Sinnott-Armstrong lab)

3. Memory

All cognitive processes depend on memory. Among other abilities, memory allows us to recognize objects and faces, remember our personal past, make decisions, and plan our future. Conscious memory is critically dependent on medial temporal regions, which interact very closely with sensory regions mediating perceptual processes and with fronto-parietal regions mediating control processes. These are a few of the questions on memory investigated by core CCN faculty:

  • Where and how are memory traces stored in the brain? (Cabeza and De Brigard labs)
  • How can the brain explain why we have false memories? (Cabeza and De Brigard labs)
  • What brain networks mediate memory processes? (Adcock, Cabeza, De Brigard and LaBar labs)
  • Which mechanisms are shared by memory, imagination, and counterfactual thinking? (Cabeza and De Brigard labs)
  • How do curiosity, novelty, and expectancy violations affect memory? (Adcock and Cabeza lab)
  • How does memory support psychological resilience? (Adcock and LaBar labs)
  • How does memory interact with attention and control processes? (Cabeza, Egner, and Woldorff labs)

4. Emotion, Motivation, and Valuation

Behavior depends not only on “cold cognition” processes, such as perception, attention, and executive control, but also “hot cognition” processes, such as emotion and reward. Emotions and rewards, which depend on regions such as the amygdala and the ventral striatum, determine how we perceive the world, what we remember, how we make decisions, and even our ethics. These are a few of the issues regarding emotion and reward that are investigated by core CCN faculty: 

  • How does the brain process rewards and code for value? (Adcock and Huettel labs)
  • What brain mechanisms explain fear, fear associations, and phobias? (LaBar lab)
  • Why do we remember better emotional than neutral events? (Cabeza and LaBar labs)
  • How does threat affect memory? (Adcock and LaBar labs)
  • How does motivation shape memory? (Adcock lab)
  • How do basic emotions explain our moral behavior? (Sinnott-Armstrong lab)
  • How does reward interact with attention? (Woldorff lab)

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