The neural and behavioral underpinnings of (conscious or unconsious) cognitive control

This research theme focuses on studying the neural and behavioral underpinnings of cognitive control and the role that consciousness plays in this. Until recently, it was assumed that cognitive control requires consciousness. However, a few recent studies (cf. Desender et al., 2013) have shown that cognitive control can also be exerted unconsciously under certain circumstances. Within this research theme, two projects can be situated.

New windows to cognitive control: the effects of attentional load and consciousness on control mode (start date: Oct 1st 2015)

PIs: Eva Van den Bussche & Tom Verguts (UGent)
PhD student: Bart Aben

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.

Unconscious cognitive control

PIs: Eva Van den Bussche & Filip Van Opstal (UGent)
PhD student: Kobe Desender

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.

The familial transmission of pain: the role of observational learning in the parent-child dyad (start date: Oct 1st 2014)

PIs: Eva Van den Bussche, Liesbet Goubert (UGent), Gethin Hughes (University of Essex)
PhD student: Elke Van Lierde

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.

The recruitment dynamics of cognitive control in insomnia (start date: Oct 1st 2014)

PIs: Eva Van den Bussche, Olivier Mairesse (VUB), Gethin Hughes (University of Essex)
PhD student: Charlotte Muscarella

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.

Cognitive control: Conscious, unconscious, proactive, and reactive

PIs: Eva Van den Bussche & Tom Verguts (UGent)
PhD student: NN (to be hired in 2016)

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.


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