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Research

In cognitive psychology the basic mechanisms and functions of human behaviour are studied. Our main research topics are conscious and unconscious processes and cognitive control. These fundamental research topics are also studied in more applied and clinical contexts (e.g., metacognitve awareness; effects of pain on executive functioning; underlying cognitive mechanisms of psychopathy). Research methods include behavioral experiments, clinical studies and neurocognitive research (EEG and fMRI).

Current projects

Lifespan development of cognitive control
PhD student: Anne-Merel Meijer
Cognitive control is the goal-directed regulation of thoughts and actions. This goal-directed regulation includes several different mechanisms, like inhibition, task updating, shifting, pro-active and re-active control, and dual tasking. Cognitive abilities developing during childhood, at their peak in young adulthood, and decline into older adulthood. This doctoral project focuses on the developmental aspect of the different cognitive control mechanisms. The different studies focus specifically on multitasking in older adults, pro- and re-active control in children, and inhibition, updating and shifting in children.

Great minds think alike: The contagious nature of cognitive control.
PhD student: Ellen Voorrips
Promotors: Eva Van den Bussche, Kobe Desender (UGent) & Gethin Hughes (University of Essex)
Cognitive control kicks in when our routine behaviour is no longer sufficient to perform well. Without this ability to rapidly and flexibly adapt our thoughts and actions in response to difficult situations, barely any daily activity would be possible in our complex world. The current project focuses on how the behavior of others influences this exertion of cognitive control. Although the influence of the mere presence of another person on performance has been studied extensively,  the influence of what that other person is thinking or doing has been largely neglected so far. Crucially, we are interested in whether and how our cognitive control exertion is affected by the cognitive control exerted by the people surrounding us. Put differently: is cognitive control contagious? For instance, does the fact that the person next to me in the library is working very hard, influence the degree to which I focus on my own work? In order to address this thought-provoking question, we will use an adapted version of the joint Simon paradigm. First, we will use this paradigm to investigate an absolute prerequisite for cognitive control to be contagious, namely our ability to detect cognitive control in others. Second, we will study precisely which behavioral cues we pick up from the other based on which we adapt our own cognitive control exertion. Finally, we will unravel the neural and psychophysiological mechanisms underlying cognitive control contagion.

The reactive-proactive control balance in healthy and clinical aging.
PhD student: Sarah De Pue
Promotors: Eva Van den Bussche & Céline Gillebert
We are continuously bombarded with input. Our cognitive system needs to selectively process relevant input, maintain this input and inhibit automatic or irrelevant input, to achieve our goals. This process is called cognitive control. The DMC theory distinguishes proactive and reactive control. Proactive control is an early selection mechanism that works preventively and anticipatory before conflict occurs. Reactive control is a late correction mechanism that detects and resolves conflict after it occurs. Young adults flexibly switch between reactive and proactive control. During aging, however, this cognitive control balance is disturbed and a shift takes place from a mainly proactive to a mainly reactive control pattern. This shift can lead to important decrements in cognitive performance. The first aim of the current project is to pinpoint when and how this transition from proactive to reactive control occurs in healthy aging. This could aid in developing programs for elderly to preserve or improve proactive control. Second, little is known about the cognitive control balance in clinical aging. Scarce studies suggest that clinical older populations are at an even increased risk of proactive control impairment. Therefore, we will assess the reactive-proactive control balance in a clinical population at the verge of developing cognitive impairments. This will allows us to examine whether a disturbed cognitive control balance is a marker of early onset cognitive decline.

Enhancing Creative Problem Solving: Processes at Work during Incubation and Illumination
PhD student: Hans Stuyck (2nd promotor: Prof. Axel Cleeremans, ULB)
In our daily lives we constantly encounter problems requiring us to be insightful and creative. Therefore it is crucial to identify how the process of creativity can be facilitated. Wallas defined four stages of the creative process: (a) an initial phase of working on the problem (i.e., preparation); (b) a phase where attention is diverted away from the problem (i.e., incubation); (c) the sudden feeling of insight (i.e., illumination) and (d) the verification of the accurateness of the solution (i.e., verification). Especially processes at work during incubation and illumination seem viable candidates for understanding and enhancing creative problem solving. In this project we will therefore focus on different ways to influence the incubation and illumination phases, so that creative problem solving is enhanced. During incubation, we will examine the effect of unconscious thought and of presenting conscious clues or analogies. To stimulate illumination, we will use task specific subliminal cues, subliminally activate a more general creative mindset and induce negative and positive emotions. This project endeavours to clarify what works best to enhance performance in these crucial stages of creative problem solving, so that the mechanisms of creative thinking and the opportunities for its enhancement can be further unravelled.

Thinking and doing. The dynamics between cognitive and motor control.
PIs: Eva Van den Bussche & Gethin Hughes
Imagine putting together a complex Ikea wardrobe. In order to achieve this successfully, you will need to control your actions (maintaining balance, performing a specific sequence of actions, etc.) and your thoughts (detecting mistakes, correcting them, etc.). Many of our day-to-day tasks involve such concurrent thinking and doing, requiring both cognitive and motor control. Although a link and interdependence between these two constructs seems intuitive, cognitive and motor control are mostly studied in separate literatures and their relation is still poorly understood. The aim of this research line is to unravel the interplay between cognitive and motor control using a multidimensional approach. First, we will study the underlying fundamental mechanisms of concurrent cognitive and motor control, both behaviorally and neurally. Second, We will study how the joint exertion of both control types influences subjective experiences, such as experienced effort and sense of agency. Third, we will place concurrent cognitive and motor control in a more dynamic, real-life context.

Previous projects

The key role of cognitive control in the relation between basic numerical skills, math anxiety and math performance
Postdoc: Delphine Sasanguie (Main promotor: Prof. Bert Reynvoet, KU Leuven)
Given the urgent call from education policy in Flanders to have more adolescents enrolled in courses about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), insight in the building blocks of math is more fundamental than ever. Despite it is well-known that both cognitive and affective factors influence math learning, researchers to date focused only on one of these without taking into account their interaction. Considering the cognitive skills, we and other researchers have shown that performance on basic numerical skills such as discriminating two magnitudes or judging whether magnitudes are in order, are important predictors for math. The most significant emotional factor is math anxiety (MA), especially in adolescents. In the current project, we want to demonstrate that one general cognitive mechanism, cognitive control (CC), is at play influencing both these math-specific cognitive and affective factors. We will, as the first, investigate the interrelations between CC, MA, basic numerical skills and math performance in two large samples of early vs late adolescents. Moreover, the early adolescents will be tested again one year later to examine the direction of the relation between CC and MA: Does MA lead to suboptimal recruitment of CC, or is a deficient CC co-responsible for the emergence of MA? Next, we will set up intervention studies training CC, to positively influence both MA and basic numerical skills simultaneously, to ultimately boost math learning.

New windows to cognitive control: the effects of attentional load and consciousness on control mode
PhD student: Bart Aben (2nd promotor: Prof. Tom Verguts, UGent)
To overcome situations with conflicting information (e.g., two arrows pointing in different directions) we need to exert cognitive control. We can do this by adapting to the situation immediately after detecting the conflict (i.e., reactive control). However, in situations where there’s much conflict, it is more effective to keep track of previously encountered conflict and use this information to prepare yourself for future conflict (i.e., proactive control). This kind of control requires more attentional resources (i.e., you need to attend and remember the previous conflict situations). It may also require conscious awareness of previous conflict. In this project, we propose a new method to study these different types of control. We will examine how many past events people use (i.e., the “window”) to determine their current control behavior in different conflicting situations. A small window indicates that the control mode is only based on very recent events. A large window indicates that it is also based on events in the more distant past. We expect that this window narrows with increasing attentional load and in unconscious situations. This should also be reflected in brain areas associated to cognitive control, such as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC). The method we propose has not been applied to cognitive control yet, offers high flexibility, and can easily include other factors that might affect cognitive control.

The recruitment dynamics of cognitive control in insomnia
PhD student: Charlotte Muscarella (2nd promotor: Prof. Olivier Mairesse, VUB; Co-promotor: Dr. Gethin Hughes, University of Essex)
Insomnia patients report severe deficits in cognitive functioning. However, both behavioral and neurological research on these complaints remains remarkable scarce and inconclusive. The Dual Mechanisms of Control theory proposes that reduced cognitive efficiency might be caused by changes in the temporal dynamics of the neural recruitment of cognitive control mechanisms. Cognitivecontrol reflects our ability to plan a new strategy, evaluate it, control its execution and correct possible errors. More specifically, it is hypothesized that insomnia patients have difficulty maintaining task goals to anticipate and prevent interference before it occurs. Based on this theory, we use a more dynamic approach in the current project in order to shed light on how insomniacs recruit cognitive control and under which circumstances its efficiency fails. Furthermore, our project aims to explore whether these biased patterns of neural activation are reversible and can be trained. By incorporating a cognitive strategy training, we will examine whether a shift towards a more efficient cognitive control recruitment can be established in insomniacs. With this project we aim to increase our understanding of the recruitment dynamics of cognitive control in insomniacs and its flexibility. Consequently, these insights can provide promising indications with regards to cognitive interventions in clinical practice.

The familial transmission of pain: the role of observational learning in the parent-child dyad
PhD student: Elke Van Lierde (2nd promotor: Prof. Liesbet Goubert, UGent; Co-promotor: Dr. Gethin Hughes, University of Essex)
Although research has demonstrated that chronic pain tends to run in families, the underlying mechanisms are still unclear. In this project, we will focus on psychological processes that can make children of chronic pain sufferers more vulnerable to develop chronic pain themselves. According to the fear-avoidance model, three processes are considered to be pivotal in the development and sustainment of chronic pain in adults and children: pain catastrophizing (i.e., the tendency to exaggerate the threat value of pain and perceived inability to cope with pain), pain-related fear (i.e., an emotional fear reaction to pain-related stimuli) and hypervigilance (i.e., heightened selective attention) to pain. Extensive research has shown that a vicious cycle of pain, catastrophizing, fear, attention to pain and disability is involved in chronic pain. We aim to investigate how these processes develop in children. In particular, we will study the influences of observing important social models (i.e., parent) on children’s responses to pain. This way, we will extend preliminary research results demonstrating the role of observational learning in the context of pain. The aims of this project are to investigate how observing a parent’s pain can (1) induce pain-related fear, (2) heighten vigilance to pain and (3) alter the processing and experience of pain in children. In addition, moderating influences of pre-existing pain catastrophizing and pain-related fear on these effects are studied.

Semisupervised Category Learning
PhD student: Katleen Vandist (co-promotor: Prof. Gert Storms, KU Leuven; Tim Vantilborgh, VUB)
In the human category learning literature, category learning is typically investigated in a supervised or an unsupervised way. Supervised category learning involves that participants receive feedback after each encounter of a category member, whereas unsupervised learning implies that no information about the category label is ever provided. However, both forms of category learning seem ecological implausible. In the current dissertation, we argue that in real life information about the category is provided occasionally, implying that humans learn in a semisupervised way. This semisupervised category learning is explored in several ways. In chapter II, a semisupervised classification learning paradigm was tested using the information-integration category structure. Participants learned in a semisupervised way and their performance was compared to supervised and unsupervised learners. Almost all semisupervised learners obtained high accuracy performance, comparable to the supervised learners. Our results showed that a sufficient amount of feedback is essential for successful learning. Remarkably, early in the learning process trials that were not followed by feedback did not have an impact. Chapter III focused on the effect of semisupervised learning late in the learning process, when automaticity develops. All participants were first trained supervisedly and only expert learners were allowed to proceed to the actual experiment. The results showed that at the end of the experiment the semisupervised learners categorized stimuli significantly faster than the supervised learners, even when the total number of trials in the supervised and semisupervised conditions was identical. Thus, late in learning the no-feedback trials did have an impact: they accelerated the development of automaticity. In chapter IV semisupervised learning was investigated in the A not A category structure, early in the learning process. Again, semisupervised learning was successful (resulting in high accuracy rates), when at least 25% of the trials was followed by feedback. The no-feedback trials did not have an impact. Chapter V provides an overview of the obtained empirical results. Integrating the results of this dissertation, three striking conclusions could be made. First, semisupervised learning is successful. Second, the onset of the no-feedback trials in the learning process seems crucial: when implemented early in learning, these trials have no impact; when implemented late in learning, the no-feedback trials accelerate the learning process. Third, in every study individual differences in category learning were observed. These findings are situated in the broader literature and limitations of the studies are discussed. Finally, future research ideas are suggested.

Cognitive control: Conscious, unconscious, proactive, and reactive
(Co-promotor: Prof. Tom Verguts, UGent)
Consciousness remains a mysterious topic which receives massive attention from psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists. Despite the long research tradition, the function of consciousness remains unclear. One way to investigate which processes critically require consciousness, is to compare conscious versus unconscious processing. A promising domain to implement this approach is cognitive control. Cognitive control entails our abilities to plan a new strategy, evaluate it, control its execution, and correct possible errors. This has often been exclusively associated with consciousness, although recent data suggest otherwise. Cognitive control therefore provides a fruitful domain to explore this debated issue. Two types of cognitive control can be distinguished. Reactive control occurs in direct response to an encountered problem or error, whereas proactive control entails planning ahead of possible problems. In the current project, we first, and for the first time, rigorously test at the behavioral level whether unconscious reactive control is possible and contrast it to conscious reactive control. Second, we examine whether proactive control is also possible at an unconscious level. Third, we investigate the neural correlates of reactive and proactive control, again making sure we clearly distinguish conscious from unconscious trials.

Unconscious cognitive control
PhD student: Kobe Desender (Co-promotor: Dr. Filip Van Opstal, ULB)
In order to define the borders of unconscious processing, it has been argued that cognitive control is a set of strategic operations exclusively associated with consciousness. The prefrontal cortex is known to play a crucial role in cognitive control, and consequently, most theories state that this brain area cannot be activated by an unconscious task. However, in this project, we adopt a more significant role for unconscious processing, and examine whether cognitive control can also be exerted unconsciously. To address this question, we will study a specific form of cognitive control, namely context effects. A paradigm which circumvents theoretical and methodological problems demonstrated for previous studies will be used. In a first part, it will be tested whether an unconscious context can be created at all. We will examine whether the influence of unconscious ambiguous stimuli on response behavior can be altered depending on the context created by other stimuli presented in the experiment. In a second part, it will be tested whether subjects are also able to use these unconscious contexts to improve responding. We will create one context with mainly congruent and one with mainly incongruent trials, and look whether subjects can adapt to these contexts. In a third part, a functional MRI study will be conducted, to investigate whether, contrary to predictions of current theories, the prefrontal cortex is involved in the adaptation to unconscious contexts.