Proposed PhD Projects

My research explores the neural mechanisms that control the allocation of attention to memory and perceptual representations. My main expertise lies in somatosensation, but I am also interested in the visual modality and in multisensory processing. My preferred methods encompass behavioural measures and electroencephalography (EEG), in particular, event-related potentials (ERPs). I welcome applications from PhD students wishing to investigate the links between attention, perception, working memory and cognitive control, especially in the somatosensory modality and in multisensory (tactile/visual) task contexts. I am also interested in projects that examine how executive task-demands influence the precision of stimulus representations in visual working memory.

 

Attending to memory representations

There are numerous occasions in everyday-life when people have to memorize bits of information in order to complete a task in the near future. For example, you might try to retain a phone number while searching for a pen and paper to write it down. This ability of memorizing information over brief periods in time is called working memory (WM).

WM emerges when representations in long-term memory are activated by attention. The fact that WM capacity is strictly limited (people cannot memorize more than 3-5 items in visual tasks) is presumably the consequence of the limited amount of attention resources. The observation that individual differences in WM capacity predict performance in a wide range of cognitive tasks (including tests of fluid intelligence) further suggests that WM is a critical cognitive function that plays a role in numerous cognitive domains.

 

Attentional selection of locations, features and objects in the sense of touch

It is established that the selection of sensory events can be accomplished based on stimulus locations, (non-spatial) features and objects, but evidence for this comes mainly from studies of the visual modality. Using a recently discovered EEG marker of tactile target selection, my collaborators and I have begun to examine the neural mechanisms that allow for selecting tactile locations, features, and location-feature conjunctions (Katus & Eimer, 2019). Building on this work, future research projects could systematically examine the factors influencing target selection processes within the somatosensory modality. Potentially relevant topics could include the interplay between voluntary (top-down) and stimulus-driven (bottom-up) processes, as well as the influence of body posture on tactile selection.

 

Multisensory processing and task-switching

On the first trial after a task switch, performance is lower than in subsequent trials. This task-switching effect reflects the costs of changing “mental gears” (Monsell, 2003). How does the cognitive system prepare for a task switch? According to some researchers, the task set of the previous task is replaced with that of the upcoming task. This leads to a re-orienting of attention towards the stimuli, responses, and stimulus-response mappings that are relevant for the upcoming task (Kiesel et al., 2010, p 850).

How does task-switching affect perceptual processing? How quickly can attention be shifted between modalities? What happens with the ignored modality after a task switch (can it be “switched off” without any residual effects)? These questions can be answered using EEG markers of tactile and somatosensory encoding in tasks that require switches between touch and vision.

 

References:

Katus T & Eimer M (2019). The N2cc component as an electrophysiological marker of space-based and feature-based attentional target selection processes in touch. Psychophysiology, 56(9), e13391.

Kiesel A, Steinhauser M, Wendt M, Falkenstein M, Jost K, Philipp AM & Koch I (2010). Control and interference in task switching - a review. Psychological bulletin, 136(5), 849-74.

Monsell S (2003). Task switching. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(3), 134-140.