" 'Thoughts' and 'things' are names for two sorts of object, which common sense will always find contrasted and will always practically oppose to each other."
- William James (1904)
Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist
The lab is engaged in the following major projects:
Individual differences in social cognition and non-social reasoning
Everyone knows the geek stereotype – the kid who is good at math and science but socially awkward. Is there any real basis for this in the brain? We are conducting a study looking at social and non-social reasoning domains, using a suite of behavioral measures as well as neural measures. Our recent findings demonstrate a striking pattern in the brain: engaging in scientific reasoning turns off core brain areas involved in social cognition, and vice versa. We are looking at how this pattern relates to individual differences in performance, and to high-functioning individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum disorders. This work has important social implications. Does the brain place fundamental limits on human performance? Can we be both logical and empathetic at the same time?
Society for Neuroscience 2009 Poster
2007 Introduction to the Lab Video
Draft Methods Video
(Parts of this project are in collaboration with Avi Snyder, Dept. Neurology, Washington University in St Louis; Angela Ciccia, Dept of Communication Sciences; Heath Demaree, Dept of Psychology)
How can coaching relationships best help individuals realize their potential? We aim to improve coaching and therapeutic relationships by using cognitive neuroscience to reveal the mechanisms of effective helping. This research is guided by how different cognitive styles work in the brain, and by Richard Boyatzis's Intentional Change theory. Our recent findings indicate that coaching students with compassion (focusing on their goals and aspirations), as opposed to more standard methods of coaching (focusing on their academic performance), produces enhanced activation of visual and auditory association areas. We think of this as the neural signature of visioning – the increased cognitive and perceptual openness that comes from being inspired.
CWRU's Video about this project
Society for Neuroscience 2009 Poster
(This project is a collaboration with Richard Boyatzis, Dept of Organizational Psychology, Weatherhead School of Business)
Meta-analysis and functional annotation
We know the brain is functionally specialized – different brain areas do different things. But how exactly should we characterize the function of a given brain area, or network of brain areas? One set of tasks might suggest one function for a brain area, while a second set of tasks might suggest it is critical for a quite different function. For instance, areas involved in understanding what other people believe also appear to be important for reorienting attention. This surprising finding provides an important clue about what that brain area is doing, and what those tasks have in common. More generally, researchers are beginning to realize that they need to take a broader perspective, and look at how brain areas are recruited in a broad range of tasks. We are looking at this issue using foci data from SUMSDB, as well as close to 10,000 coordinates we have entered ourselves from published papers in topics of interest. We look at this data in combination with resting state connectivity data downloaded from the NITRIC 1000 connectomes project. We use established meta-analysis methods, and we are also developing our own computational methods for better integrating this data.
Society for Neuroscience 2010 Poster
(Computational aspects of this project are in collaboration with Soumya Ray in the Dept of Computer Science, School of Engineering)
Attachment and the brain
Our social bonds, including those with family, friends, and significant others, do much to determine our psychological well-being. Recent evidence also indicates that the richness of an individual’s social connections profoundly influences their health, from proneness to dementia to the likelihood of suffering from a heart attack. How do we form and maintain these social bonds? We are examining the neural basis of attachment by looking at neural responses to faces and other stimuli (like cute animals and computers). The project looks at individuals suffering from dementia, individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and individual differences in brain function in young healthy adults. Our recent findings shed light on the neural basis of Capgras – a ‘detachment’ disorder in which the patient comes to believe that their significant other has been replaced by an imposter.
Annual Academy of Neurology 2010 Poster
(Study of individuals with dementia in collaboration with Alan Lerner, Dept of Neurology; study of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in collaboration with Anastasia Dimotropolous)
Consciousness, Morality and the Soul
Most people agree that the body houses the mind. But many are reluctant to agree that the mind is nothing but the brain, that feelings are nothing but the activity of neurons, or that computers could be conscious. For many people, this is because they believe that people have a soul. For scientists, it is because they think we have yet to develop an adequate account of the processes that give rise to consciousness. While there are important differences between these views, we can also see them as different manifestations of a general human tendency: the resistance to seeing people merely as biological machines. Why do we resist this view? We think our sense of morality is the key. We see people as more than machines, because machines don’t make it into our moral circle. It is no crime to turn a computer off, or even to throw it away. People, on the other hand, have special value - they are objects of moral concern. We also hold competent people morally responsible for their actions. But we don’t think of machines as morally responsible, no matter how smart or powerful they are, because they don’t have free will. Some years ago we wrote a philosophical paper arguing that our moral sense lies at the heart of our intuitions about consciousness and free will. Now we our using the methods of experimental philosophy and social psychology to find empirical support for this view.
Paper on The Phenomenal Stance
(This project is a collaboration with Philip Robbins, Dept of Philosophy, University of Missouri)
Maps in the Brain
We have developed methods for assessing topography organization on the cortical surface, with the most immediate application of examining retinotopic organization of higher visual areas involved in attention. The quantitative metrics we have developed provide more a more rigorous method of determining whether topographic organization is present. They may also prove useful to assessing individual differences in topographic organization and its relationship to performance.
PloS One Paper
(This project is a collaboration with Maurizio Corbetta, Dept Neurology, Washington University in St Louis)
Why do certain sorts of boundary-crossing stimuli provoke moral responses? For instance, why do people argue that gay marriage threatens the institution of marriage? Alternatively, why are we uncomfortable with the idea of robots that are virtually indistinguishable from human beings? This project is concerned with examining the neural origins of this broad category of moral response. Many moral sentiments relate to a sense of fairness or justice, but the stimuli we are interested in here provoke a different sort of moral sentiment. These are things that have been described as ‘unnatural’, or an ‘abomination’. In more contemporary parlance they might be described as ‘creepy’ or ‘just wrong’. We hypothesize that the trigger for these responses occurs when different neural modules, associated with representing ‘self’ and ‘other’, compete to represent an ambiguous stimulus. This ‘threat to self-hood’ creates an emotional arousal in the individual. Depending on context, this arousal may be translated into a moral sentiment. This work aims to provide scientific information that might help inform debate around issues such as: What does it mean to be human? When and why should we seek to maintain the integrity of familiar social categories? When should we allow, or even encourage, the boundaries between categories to be blurred?
This research project is being pursued alongside a seminar course for advanced undergraduate Cognitive Science students: ‘Moral boundaries and the limits of science’, co-taught by Anthony Jack and Stuart Youngner (Chair of Bioethics).
(This project is a collaboration with Stuart Youngner, Dept Bioethics; Sara Waller, Dept. Philosophy, Montana State University; Shanon French, Director of the Inamori Center for Ethics and Excellence)