Higher cognition

What happens in the brain when someone tells you to "imagine a red duck sitting on a blue elephant"? You have probably never seen a duck sitting on an elephant before, let alone specimens of those colors. But for some reason you are able to imagine this scene. We have an immensely powerful ability to imagine things, even conjure up things that do not exist. But how does it work?

The same question arises even when you simplify the scenario and only ask to "imagine a duck". You immediately have a "picture" of a duck in your head. But where does it come from - how is it represented and memorized in the brain?  At some point in your life you may have encountered a duck, be it in real life or in a book, and somebody pointed out that this creature is in fact called a "duck". Something happened in your brain, associating the visual information with the word duck, maybe also with the sound of a duck and the way the duck moved. A concept was born in your mind, the concept of "duck".

In the Higher Cognition project, we are trying to understand how such concepts are learned, represented, and memorized in the brain and how concepts can be combined to imagine complex scenarios such as "red duck on top of a blue elephant".

We believe that concepts are represented very close to the sensory-motor system; that the representation of a duck consists of neural activation that is very similar to the activation coming up when you perceive a duck. We do not believe, for instance, that somewhere in the brain there are abstract, let alone innate, concepts for "duck" or "elephant" that are totally removed from what a duck or elephant look and feel like.

This project is an ongoing collaboration with Jonas Lins, Oliver Lomp, Sebastian Schneegans, and Gregor Schöner.



Behavioral organization

In our daily lives we engage in a vast number of different activities. Driving a bike, cooking an omelet, climbing a mountain, painting a picture, or doing a parcour move on a sidewalk, as in the photo above. Many of these activities require that we organize parts of the activity into a sequence. For instance when cooking an omelet, you need to fetch a pan, put it on the stove, turn on the stove, fetch the eggs, break them into the pan, and so on and so forth. How do we generate sequences of actions like that? How do we represent them in our brain while keeping the goal in mind and not getting lost in the details of our activities? And how can we just drop everything to answer the phone and resume preparing our omelet afterward like nothing happened?

In the Behavioral Organization project, we are working on mechanisms to generate sequences of behaviors that are flexible enough to react to changes in the environment. These sequences emerge from constraints, for instance that an action A has to be successfully finished before an action B can be executed; or that action A is suppressed whenever B is activated.

We have created a neural-dynamic model of a pool of elementary behaviors that are organized by such constraints.

This project is an ongoing collaboration with Yulia Sandamirskaya and Gregor Schöner.