New publication: Learning to fear pain after observing another’s pain: An experimental study in schoolchildren


Children of individuals with chronic pain have an increased vulnerability to experience pain problems, possibly through observation of pain in their parents. As pain‐related fear (PRF) is a critical factor in the development and maintenance of chronic pain, the current experimental study examined the acquisition of PRF through observational learning and subsequent extinction after first‐hand experience of the feared stimulus. Healthy children (8–16 years) observed either their mother or a stranger performing two cold pressor tasks (CPT) filled with coloured water. In a differential conditioning procedure, one colour (CS+) was combined with genuine painful facial expressions and the other colour (CS−) with neutral facial expressions. Following this observation phase, children performed both CPTs (10°C) themselves. Children expected the CS+ to be more painful than the CS− and they reported being more afraid and hesitant to immerse in the CS+ compared to the CS−. Moreover, this fear was reflected in children’s level of arousal in anticipation of CPT performance. This learned association extinguished after performing both CPTs. Effects were not moderated by whether the child observed their mother or a stranger, by the child’s pain catastrophizing, trait PRF or trait anxiety. Remarkably, learning effects increased when the child perceived a larger difference between the model’s painful and neutral facial expressions. This study provides evidence for observational learning of PRF and subsequent extinction in schoolchildren. This acquisition of PRF by observing parental pain may contribute to vulnerabilities in children of parents with chronic pain.


Children may acquire pain‐related fear by observing pain in others and this learned fear can diminish after first‐hand experience. Remarkably, observational learning did not depend on the children’s relationship with the model, but it did depend on the intensity of pain that is perceived. A better understanding of the impact of observing (parental) pain may help clarify the intergenerational transmission of risk for pain and inform the development of preventive programs.

Van Lierde, E., Goubert, L., Vervoort, T., Hughes, G., & Van den Bussche, E. (2019). Learning to fear pain after observing another’s pain: An experimental study in schoolchildren. European Journal Of Pain, 24, 791-806. doi:10.1002/ejp.1529

New publication: Recruitment dynamics of cognitive control in insomnia

Study Objectives

Individuals with insomnia disorder (ID) commonly report complaints of cognitive control functioning. Conversely, both behavioral and neurological evidence supporting subjective cognitive control impairments in insomnia remain remarkably scarce and inconclusive. To investigate this discrepancy, the present study used next to behavioral measures, event-related potentials (ERPs) to assess proactive control and reactive control in insomnia.


Individuals with insomnia disorder (n = 18) and good sleeper controls (GSC; n = 15) completed the AX-continuous performance task, while electroencephalography (EEG) was recorded. This task required participants to maintain specific cue-information active to prepare an adequate response to a subsequent probe, which allowed us to measure participants’ reliance on both proactive and reactive control.


The results indicate that, although ID show a comparable level of performance as GSC, they show a reduced proactive engagement of cue-induced maintenance and response preparation processes (as reflected by the P3b and the contingent negative variation components). Moreover, in contrast to GSC, ID fail to engage reactive control (as indexed by the P3a component) to overcome invalid response tendencies.


This study provides neurological evidence for impairments in cognitive control functioning in insomnia. As such, our study contributes to a better understanding of the discrepancy between the commonly reported cognitive impairments in insomnia and the scarce objective evidence supporting these cognitive complaints.

Muscarella, C., Mairesse, O., Hughes, G., Neu, D., & Van den Bussche, E. (2019). Recruitment dynamics of cognitive control in insomnia. SLEEP42(5), Article number zsz039 . doi:10.1093/sleep/zsz039

Postponed: EEG workshop BioSemi

Due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak this workshop will be postponed until further notice.

Together with Marie-Anne Vanderhasselt (UGent) and Eva Dierckx (VUB), and with the support of the Doctoral School Humanities and Social Sciences of KU Leuven, we are organizing an EEG workshop. This workshop is aimed at learning how to work with the BioSemi EEG infrastructure. The workshop will be organized four times at the EEG lab in the PSI (Tiensestraat 102, 3000 Leuven, 91.67): twice on 4/3/2020 and twice on 23/9/2020. On both days, a first workshop will be held from 9.00 to 13.00 and a second from 14.00 to 18.00. Workshops include information on handling the hardware of the BioSemi and booking system, as well as a hands-on session during which you can apply all the seps yourself.

A maximum of 8 researchers can participate in each of the four workshops. The workshop is open to all, but especially aimed at PhD students and postdocs. PhD students can participate for free. For postdocs and academic staff we ask a small registration fee of 20 euro.
Please note that if you plan to use the BioSemi infrastructure of the Brain & Cognition research unit, following this workshop in advance is requirerd!

You can register for the workshops via google forms below:

Registration will occur on a first come, first served basis. Please contact us if you need more information via .

New publication: Context-dependent modulation of cognitive control involves different temporal profiles of fronto-parietal activity

To efficiently deal with quickly changing task demands, we often need to organize our behaviour on different time scales. For example, to ignore irrelevant and select relevant information, cognitive control might be applied in reactive (short time scale) or proactive (long time scale) mode. These two control modes play a pivotal role in cognitive-neuroscientific theorizing but the temporal dissociation of the underlying neural mechanisms is not well established empirically. In this fMRI study, a cognitive control task was administered in contexts with mainly congruent (MC) and mainly incongruent (MI) trials to induce reactive and proactive control, respectively. Based on behavioural profiles, we expected cognitive control in the MC context to be characterized by transient activity (measured on-trial) in task-relevant areas. In the MI context, cognitive control was expected to be reflected in sustained activity (measured in the intertrial interval) in similar or different areas. Results show that in the MC context, on-trial transient activity (incongruent – congruent trials) was increased in fronto-parietal areas, compared to the MI context. These areas included dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and intraparietal sulcus (IPS). In the MI context, sustained activity in similar fronto-parietal areas during the intertrial interval was increased, compared to the MC context. These results illuminate how context-dependent reactive and proactive control subtend the same brain areas but operate on different time scales.

The results of this study, conducted by Bart Aben, Cristian Buc Calderon, Laurens Van de Cruyssen, Doerte Picksack, Eva Van den Bussche and Tom Verguts are published in NeuroImage.

Aben, B., Buc Calderon, C., Van der Cruyssen, L., Picksak, D., Van den Bussche, E., & Verguts, T. (2019). Context-dependent modulation of cognitive control involves different temporal profiles of fronto-parietal activity. NeuroImage, DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.02.004.

The article is available here.

New publication: Persistent modification of cognitive control through attention training

An important aspect of cognitive control is to direct attention towards relevant information and away from distracting information. This attentional modulation is at the core of several influential frameworks, but its trainability and generalisability remain unclear. To address this issue, two groups of subjects were invited to the lab on three consecutive days. On Day 2, they performed an arrow priming task which trained them to adopt an attentional bias towards (prime-attended group) or away from (prime-diverted group) a potentially conflicting prime. Direct generalisation of the attention training was measured by assessing task performance on the same task without the attentional manipulation directly after training (Day 2) and the next day (Day 3), and comparing it to baseline (Day 1). Performance on this direct transfer task showed a difference in attentional modulation between groups directly after training that persisted the next day. No cross-task generalisation was found to two other tasks that were closely or more remotely related to the trained task. Together, these results are in accordance with cognitive control frameworks that limit attentional modulation to the specific features of the trained task.

The results of this study, conducted by Bart Aben, Blerina Iseni, Eva Van den Bussche and Tom Verguts are published in Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Aben, B., Iseni, B., Van den Bussche, E., & Verguts, T. (2018). Persistent modification of cognitive control through attention training. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, DOI: 10.1177/1747021818757979.

The article is available here.

New publication: Semisupervised category learning facilitates the development of automaticity

In the human category of learning, learning is studied in a supervised, an unsupervised, or a semisupervised way. The rare human semisupervised category of learning studies all focus on early learning. However, the impact of the semisupervised category learning late in learning, when automaticity develops, is unknown. Therefore, in Experiment 1, all participants were first trained on the information-integration category structure for 2 days until they reached an expert level. Afterwards, half of the participants learned in a supervised way and the other half in a semisupervised way over two successive days. Both groups received an equal number of feedback trials. Finally, all participants took part in a test day where they were asked to respond as quickly as possible. Participants were significantly faster on this test in the semisupervised group than in the supervised group. This difference was not found on day 2, implying that the no-feedback trials in the semisupervised condition facilitated automaticity. Experiment 2 was designed to test whether the higher number of trials in the semisupervised condition of Experiment 1 caused the faster response times. We therefore created an almost supervised condition where participants almost always received feedback (95%) and an almost unsupervised condition where participants almost never received feedback (5%). All conditions now contained an equal number of trials to the semisupervised condition of Experiment 1. The results show that receiving feedback almost always or almost never led to slower response times than the semisupervised condition of Experiment 1. This confirms the advantage of semisupervised learning late in learning.

The results of this study, conducted by Katleen Vandist, Gert Storms and Eva Van den Bussche are published in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics.

Vandist, K., Storms, G., & Van den Bussche, E. (2018). Semisupervised category learning facilitates the development of automaticity. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 1-21.

The article is available here.

New publication: Absence without leave or leave without absence: Examining the interrelations among mind wandering, metacognition and cognitive control

Despite the abundance of recent publications about mind wandering (i.e., off-task thought), its interconnection with metacognition and cognitive control has not yet been examined.
In the current study, we hypothesized that these three constructs would show clear interrelations. Metacognitive capacity was predicted to correlate positively with cognitive control ability, which in turn was predicted to be positively related to resistance to mind wandering during sustained attention. Moreover, it was expected that participants with good metacognitive capacity would be better at the subjective recognition of behaviorally present mind wandering. Three tasks were used: The Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART) to measure mind wandering, a perceptual decision task with confidence ratings to measure metacognitive efficiency, and a conflict task to measure cognitive control. Structural Equation Modelling was used to test the interrelations among the three constructs. As expected, metacognitive efficiency was positively related to cognitive control ability. Surprisingly, there was a negative relation between metacognitive efficiency and the degree to which subjective mind wandering reports tracked the behavioral index of mind wandering. No relation was found between cognitive control and behavioral mind wandering. The results of the current work are the first to shed light on the interrelations among these three constructs.

The results of this study, conducted by Leonhard Drescher, Eva Van den Bussche and Kobe Desender are published in PLOS ONE.

Drescher LH, Van den Bussche E, Desender K (2018) Absence without leave or leave without absence: Examining the interrelations among mind wandering, metacognition and cognitive control. PLOS ONE 13(2): e0191639.

The article is available here.

New publication: Subjective experience of difficulty depends on multiple cues

“The current study shows that the subjective experience of difficulty depends on multiple cues that are indicative of performance. It is shown that response conflict, reaction time, and response repetition influence subjective difficulty judgments. Trials that were congruent, fast or required the same response as the previous trial were more frequently rated as easy compared to trials that were incongruent, slow or had alternating responses. Moreover, the relative contribution of these cues can be changed by means of training: training participants to rely more on congruency or reaction time for their subjective difficulty judgment increased the influence of this cue on their judgment” (Desender et al., in press)

The results of this study, conducted by Kobe Desender, Filip Van Opstal and Eva Van den Bussche will soon be published in Scientific Reports.

Desender, K., Van Opstal, F., & Van den Bussche, E. (in press). Subjective experience of difficulty depends on multiple cues. Scientific Reports.

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