Category Archives: NVP nieuws

How do our expectations shape perception?

Only through their senses do humans and other organisms have access to the information in the world surrounding them. In the processing of this sensory information, factors like our expectations and previous experiences come into play. Heleen Slagter, associate professor at the University of Amsterdam, tries to unravel the neural mechanisms involved in the interplay between our expectations and perception. The European Research Council supported her with a fund of 1 500 000 euro.

With this grant, Slagter is able to approach the relation between expectations and perception through three main lines of inquiry. In the first, Slagter and her team try to understand why humans only have one interpretation of reality at any moment. ‘This becomes apparent when we are confronted with noisy input,’ Slagter explains. ‘When you walk down a street at night in pouring rain, you might observe a man with a hat standing on the side walk, but at second glance you realize it’s a sign post. With ambiguous input, you either recognize a man or you recognize a sign post, you never see a morphed version of the two because our prior experience tells us there is no such thing as a man-sign post.’

To determine why only one model is selected and how the brain determines which model this should be, Slagter will combine experimental manipulations of perceptual expectations with neuroimaging. She expects interplay between the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex to play a particular role in determining what percept will dominate our conscious experience. Using a pharmacological intervention, Slagter will try to modulate interactions between these brain regions, to see whether this prevents people from updating their expectations of what is out there.

In a more clinical part of this research line, Slagter collaborates with professor Damiaan Denys of the AMC to explore the relevance of basal ganglia in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). ‘You could think of OCD as an illness where our models of the world are not adjusted according to reality. For example, people clean their house constantly but don’t perceive their house to be clean. We hope by stimulating activity in the basal ganglia, we can help people update the models they use of reality, thereby helping them to perceive the outside world in a more accurate way.’

In the second line of research, the team tries to understand how attention and expectations influence perception. The amount of information reaching our senses is vast and cannot all be processed by higher brain regions. As human beings we have evolved to process information as efficiently as possible. We can do so first of all based on prior experience, through predictive processing. This means we constantly predict what we are likely to perceive and mainly process the mismatches between our predictions and incoming information. But attention also plays a critical role in guiding information processing, and may determine the extent to which these mismatches make us reconsider our predictions depending on how reliable we consider the mismatch.

Finally, Slagter wants to establish whether the human prediction machine operates automatically, outside our control. ‘I will determine whether it is possible to consciously ‘be in the moment’ and choose to not let previous experiences color our perception. Whether it is possible to perceive every single stimulus as it is, without any expectations.’ To test this, Slagter invites a Buddhist master to her lab and studies the effects of two different meditation styles. ‘I think meditation could help us perceive the world in a less biased way, creating the space to adjust our habitual perception and thoughts. I’m curious to see whether we will find experimental proof to back that up.’


Text: Marieke Buijs

How the brain determines which information reaches conscious perception

Assistant professor

Only a fraction of the stimuli surrounding us reaches our conscious perception at any moment. How does our brain switch from one stimulus to the other? And which forces influence that process? Associate professor Tomas Knapen studies these questions at VU university in Amsterdam and received a grant from NWO to combine forces with the Chinese lab of Peng Zhang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In order to reliably study conscious perception, Knapen executes his research in a strongly regulated lab setting. He uses binocular rivalry, an optic illusion for which participants wear special glasses which have one red and one green lens. Observing a red-green figure, this means one eye is confronted with the green shape, while the other eye observes a red figure in the same location. In human perception, this results in the observer being solely aware of a red figure at one point, while a moment later the image shifts and the observer only registers the green figure.

Apparently, the brain contains a mechanism that causes regular shifts in awareness between the streams of information from the left and the right eye. Knapen wants to understand how this mechanism works, also because he suspects a similar principle to be at play in switching perception in daily life: from the conversation you are in to a more interesting one at the adjacent table, or from the book you are reading to the screen of your phone. Knapen: ‘In the real world, the amount of possible switches is unlimited and the stimuli also constantly change, with passers-by that enter and leave your field of vision. In this experiment, we limit the possibilities to two consistent stimuli. That enables us to really gain understanding of the brain mechanisms at play in selecting the input that reaches consciousness.’

So what causes the shift? Is it top-down regulation from the frontal cortex or other higher level visual brain areas that are bored with the information from one eye and ‘request’ a change? Or, alternatively, is it processes of local habituation in the primary visual cortex that causes the signal from one eye to extinguish and for the other signal to take over in the information flowing to higher visual areas? Or is it some form of interaction between these two scenario’s?

To shed light on these questions, Knapen uses a 7 Tesla fMRI-scanner. That gives him the resolution to distinguish between top-down and bottom-up information streams in the different layers of the primary visual cortex. In Peking, Knapens colleague Zhang uses a MEG-scanner, which has a high temporal resolution, to differentiate between the two types of information streams. Eventually, the two teams will combine their data, making use of the good temporal and spatial resolution of the different techniques to learn about the mechanisms at play in switching attention between stimuli.

Simultaneously, Knapen will conduct a series of sub-experiments to control for biases as a result of the research instructions. ‘I find it important to be sure that we really measure what we assume to measure. Therefore, I deliberately try to control for factors that might skew the experiment.’ In the main experiment, participants receive instructions to report on their perception by pushing buttons corresponding to the green and the red image. But doing so triggers fluctuations in attention and other cognitive processes and these could influence perception. When the subject reports perceiving a green image by pushing the corresponding button, this reporting in and by itself gives the green image more valence, and that might influence the switch to the red image, Knapen theorizes. Therefore, he will compare this research setup to one in which participants don’t have to report their perception in real time, but are asked to report afterwards how many switches of the image they perceived.

Knapen hopes his experiments will help him understand conscious perception and the way in which our actions influence that perception. Knapen: ‘Ultimately I hope this type of research adds to our understanding of how people move through the interactive film that is life.’

Text: Marieke Buijs

Call for papers MathPsych/ICCM 2017

July 22nd-25th, 2017               

University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom

We would like to invite you to the 15th International Conference on Cognitive Modeling (ICCM): the premier conference for research on computational models and computation-based theories of human cognition.  This year, ICCM has joined forces with the Society for Mathematical Psychology and the European Mathematical Psychology Group 2017 meeting to create a conference in which all sessions are open to all attendees, and cross-talk is highly encouraged.

MathPsych/ICCM 2017 is a forum for presenting and discussing the complete spectrum of cognitive modeling approaches, including connectionism, symbolic modeling, dynamical systems, Bayesian modeling, and cognitive architectures. Research topics can range from low-level perception to high-level reasoning. We also welcome contributions that use computational models to better understand neuroscientific data.

We are pleased to announce three world-class invited speakers: Peter Dayan (University College London), Randy Gallistel (Rutgers University), Joe Houpt (Wright State University, Estes Early Career Award winner).

We will also have four invited symposia:

  • Using Cognitive Models to Inform Neuroimaging Data (And Vice Versa!). Organizer: Jelmer Borst
  • Models of Decision from Experience. Organizer: Ido Erev
  • Bridging Levels of Analysis with Rational Process Models. Organizers: Tom Griffiths and Adam Sanborn
  • Advances in Distributional Models of Language and Meaning. Organizers: John Willits and Melody Dye

We have separate submissions for the MathPsych parallel tracks and the ICCM single-track. For MathPsych, submissions are brief abstracts to be considered for both talks and posters. For ICCM submissions are 6-page full papers to be considered for talks, and 2-page poster abstracts. We are working with topiCS to create a special issue based on the best full ICCM papers. Submissions may be made by researchers, faculty, post-docs, graduate students and undergraduate students. Any one person may present only one paper, but may also be a co-author of other papers (this rule applies across the two conferences, i.e., when you are presenting author of a MathPsych paper, you cannot also be a presenting author of an ICCM paper). We also welcome pre-conference workshop/tutorial submissions that are not specific to MathPsych or ICCM. All types of submissions are due on March 15th, 11.59pm CEST.

More information can be found on our website:

Note that early-bird registration will be £200 (faculty) and £100 (students) and includes lunch. Limited hotel accommodation will be available on-site for a fee of £100/night (including breakfast and dinner). Conference hotel accommodation can only be booked through the conference website during registration. Registration will open on March 1st.

We hope to see you in Warwick!

Marieke van Vugt, Adrian Banks, Bill Kennedy (ICCM co-chairs)

Adam Sanborn, Gordon Brown, James Adelman (MathPsych co-chairs)


Mini-symposium:“Attention, Learning and Reward”

February 23, 2017, Time: 15.00 – 17:30
Place: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (MF-G6-13: medical faculty, G-Wing, 6th floor, room 13)





15:00- 15:05 Welcome   Introduction
15:05-15:30 Leonardo Chelazzi, University of Verona, Italy  Statistical Learning of Target Selection and Distractor Filtering
15:30-15:55 Sara Jahfari, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam On the role of learning in the future deployment of attention, and the regulation of uncertain choices: a computational approach
15:55-16:20 Jan Engelmann, Universiteit van Amsterdam How rewards and punishments guide goal-directed cognition and choice
15:55-16:20 Jan Engelmann, Universiteit van Amsterdam How rewards and punishments guide goal-directed cognition and choice
16:20-16:35 Break  
16:35-17:00 Jane Raymond, University of Birmingham Competition among motivational states drives visual attention
17:00-17:25 Jan Theeuwes, Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam Reward shapes visual attention

Mini-symposium is coupled to PhD defense of Michel Failing:

Thesis title:  “For What It’s Worth: Reward Value Drives Visual Selective Attention”
Time: 11.45 – 12:45
Place: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Aula, main building)

Download the flyer: MiniSymposiumAttentionLearningAndReward

The neural mechanisms and function of consciousness

How does the collective activity of individual neurons result in a subjective conscious experience of the world? It is one of the core questions in contemporary psychology, cognitive neuroscience and philosophy. Cognitive neuroscientist Simon van Gaal received an ERC grant of 1,5 million euro to bring the answer a little bit closer.

How does something you experience, like a thought or a dream, arise from the electrochemical processes taking place in the brain? To unravel the neural foundations of consciousness, Van Gaal and his team will spend the next five years on a series of studies.

Pharmacological intervention
An important part of the ERC funded project focuses on the molecular processes underlying consciousness. Studies in other animals have shown that the NMDA-receptor might be crucial for recurrent processing, the dynamic information exchange between brain regions. Because recurrent processes are thought to give rise to consciousness, Van Gaal expects NMDA-mediated processes to be essential in becoming aware of a stimulus. To test this, he will do reversible pharmacological interventions in humans in which he temporarily blocks NMDA receptors and measures how this influences the likelihood a subject will consciously perceive a stimulus that is briefly shown.

In order to string the behavioral measures and the molecular intervention together, Van Gaal and his team will use different visualization techniques to keep track of neural activity during the experiments. Specifically, the team is interested in registering to what extent recurrent signaling between different areas in the brain is affected by NMDA blockade.

A potential function of conscious experience
Another part of the project focuses on establishing what purpose consciousness may serve in human functioning. Van Gaal: ‘Consciousness has developed in evolution, possibly because it helps us in some way. But what it is that we gain by having conscious experiences is no yet known.’

It is known that many cognitive and perceptual functions, like processing visual or auditory input or the initiation of motor actions, can operate unconsciously, so these are not the function of consciousness. Van Gaal proposes that consciousness might benefit us by extending the period that information is available in the brain. In order to find out whether this might be true, the research team will measure whether subjects can use unconscious information to base decisions on later in time or whether this retention of information only happens when a stimulus is consciously processed.

Vegetative state
Although Van Gaal is primarily driven by curiosity to understand the fundamental workings of the human brain, in a longer run, he can see these insights resulting in more practical solutions, especially when it concerns insight into the molecular processes involved. Van Gaal: ‘Knowledge of the neurotransmitter-systems implicated in consciousness might eventually help us find ways to treat people who have problems relating to consciousness, patients who are in a vegetative state for example.’

Text: Marieke Buijs

Typically, human behavior is explained as the result of a battle between deliberate efforts to achieve a certain goal and external factors that subconsciously drive our behavior away from that goal. Professor in cognitive psychology Bernhard Hommel proposes an alternative theory about the relation between goal setting and behavior and received an ERC grant of 2,5 million euro to experimentally explore this theory.

Maybe people are not merely actors who, while trying to achieve a certain goal, are distracted by external factors that secretly drive their behavior instead. What if we view people as smart planners, deliberately switching between maintaining focus on their goals and being guided by circumstances? Would that be a better model to understand human behavior?

That is the overarching question Hommel will try to answer in the next five years. He will do so in an approach that spans different levels of understanding, from the molecular processes in the brain all the way up to the interpersonal interactions that are shaped by society. Hommel: ‘It is a high risk, high gain approach. But that is exactly the goal of ERC-funded research. This grant allows me to work in a team of ten scientists to look at the same question on these conceptually distinct levels.’

Because Hommel is interested in the force organizing basic processes like perception, attention and response selection, he will study the network connecting different areas in the brain. For this he has access to a high resolution 7 Tesla fMRI scanner, in which subjects will perform tasks that require either goal- oriented or stimulus-driven behavior, like the Stroop task. Hommel is especially interested in the frontal and striatal dopaminergic networks, because they embody staying focused and flexibly switching respectively. He will also have a close look at the production of dopamine, in the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental areas, as this represents the source of this organization.

On another level, the group will study whether people have control over the brain state they are in. ‘Some people might inherently be better at staying focused on their goal, while others are more flexible in dealing with external circumstances,’ Hommel remarks. ‘But I also think people have control over how they balance intrinsic and external influence on their behavior.’ The psychologist will test this hypothesis by training subjects in two distinct types of meditation. One requires people to stay focused on one thought, fighting off intruding thoughts, the other type of meditation requires the opposite, allowing all thoughts and feelings to be present. Hommel will measure how the different types of training influence the behavior of his subjects.

Artificial mini-culture
Finally, cultural factors also influence people, think for example of how perseverance is regarded as a virtue in Calvinistic societies, whereas going with the flow is more appreciated in other cultures. Hommel will imitate the influence of a societal environment on the extent to which people’s behavior is determined by their goals. He will do so by having participants acquire an artificially created mini-culture – a coherent set of rules that expresses particular norms and values. Subsequently, he will test whether this leads to the same systematic changes in perception, attention, and decision-making that natural religions have been found to produce.

Underlying the research project is Hommel’s concern with the discourse about “free will” that currently dominates psychology. ‘We often presume external stimuli take us off course, undermine our “free will”. But I don’t see a reason to believe stimulus-driven behavior to not be intentional. It can be really smart to adapt to circumstances, both in an ancestral and the current setting. Think about someone chasing a boar and adjusting this behavior when he notices a lion that is about to chase him, or someone nowadays pursuing a career as a singer, but going along with an alternative career opportunity that presents itself instead, going with the ‘distractions’ might be for the better in both scenario’s.’

Text: Marieke Buijs

Pleasure from Food – insights from brain responses to taste

Young and older adults experience similar taste sensations, but like tastes differently. This is one of the most evident outcomes from the research by Heleen Hoogeveen. She successfully defended her thesis on November 30th 2016, at the University of Groningen. Her work was part of a TI Food & Nutrition project, called Sensory & Liking, of which the outcomes provide new leads for product development targeted at the elderly. 

Grandmother likes an extra tablespoon of sugar in her tea, and grandfather wants his potatoes with a heavy sprinkling of salt. In fact, many elderly compared to young adults prefer foods with intense taste. Researchers tend to think that in the elderly decreased taste sensation is related to changes in taste liking. “However, we observed that healthy older adults sense tastes similar to young adults, but show higher liking for sweet and salty tastes”, stresses Hoogeveen.“ This is probably because taste liking is dependent on more factors than taste sensation alone.”

Neuronal processes

Searching for a better understanding of taste liking, Hoogeveen investigated the neuronal processes taking place from the moment the product touches the tongue and stimulates the taste buds to the moment people give their opinion on how they like the taste. She and her colleagues were the first to measure (via functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)) brain activity, in 39 healthy young adults (18-30 years of age) and 35 healthy elderly people (60 to 72 years of age), when tasting sweet, sour, salt and bitter at different concentrations.

In contrast to earlier findings, Hoogeveen found no activity differences in brain areas involved in taste sensations between the young adults and the elderly. This indicates that aging per se is not necessarily related to changes in taste sensation. However, brain areas involved in memory and emotions did show differences between the two age groups. “In elderly these areas showed higher activity, which might explain the differences in product appreciation between them and younger participants.”

Hoogeveen also investigated how the amount and composition of saliva affects taste processing in the brain. “Mucin concentration, as a proxy of viscosity of saliva, was related to activity in a brain area coding taste intensity”, she says. “Perhaps this finding could impact salt and sugar reduction tools.”

Optimizing products

According to the PhD fellow, much food product development currently focuses on how foods can retard the aging process. “In addition to this focus on the nutritional value of food product, there should be just as much attention on optimizing the appreciation of products for the elderly”, she stresses. “Our work indicates the need for such research.”

Hoogeveen, who is looking for a position as a researcher bridging science and the food industry, experienced her time at TiFN as very inspiring. “It is challenging to translate fundamental outcomes towards practical applications. In this project industry partners and scientists communicated concisely and effectively to bridge this gap, providing valuable outcomes for us all.”



When: November 24-25, 2016
Where: De Doelenzaal, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Singel 425, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The aim of the meeting is to provide a broad overview of recent developments in the field of attention from different perspectives (e.g., animal studies, EEG/MRI, developmental). Talks will be given by experts in the field and are followed by discussions. There is a poster session and other ample opportunities for interactions with the speakers. Questions addressed include: How does attention shape sensory processing and perception? Can we optimize attentional functioning through e.g., brain stimulation or cognitive training? What are important avenues for future research?

Invited speakers:

Prof. Martin Eimer
Prof. Fabrizio Doricchi
Prof. Pieter Roelfsema
Prof. Serge Dumoulin
Prof. Jan Theeuwes
Prof. Alexander Sack
Dr. Mathilde Bonnefond
Prof. Gaia Scerif
Dr. Gustav Kuhn


Artem Belopolsky (VU,
Heleen Slagter (UvA,


Registration can be done through the following internetlink:
Registration and poster submission deadline is November, 1, 23.59


The program is available here: meeting is open for all PhD students and more senior scientists.

EPOS ( is a network for graduate education, with members from psychology departments at the Universities of Amsterdam, Leiden, Maastricht, Twente, Erasmus University Rotterdam, and VU University Amsterdam. The goal of EPOS is to provide opportunities to PhD students for advanced education in the field of Experimental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience.

Download flyer in PDF format: epos-attention-workshop-2016

Institute for Brain and Behavior (iBBA) – Opening Symposium

Institute for Brain and Behavior (iBBA) – Opening Symposium

On May 23rd, the newly formed Institute for Brain and Behavior (iBBA) will hold its opening symposium in the auditorium of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. The symposium will be chaired by prof. dr. Erik Scherder and promises an impressive line-up of speakers. The full program can be found below.

People who are interested in attending can register here.

Keep in mind that the registration deadline is May 1st and there is a first come first serve policy, as the space in the auditorium is limited.

North Sea Laterality Meeting 2016

North Sea Laterality 2016: The international meeting on lateralisation in brain and behaviour


Registration and abstract submission have opened for the North Sea Laterality conference, to be held on 1-3 September 2016 in Groningen, The Netherlands.

This conference follows up on the successful biannual series of the North Sea Meeting on Brain Asymmetry. Contributions may address functional lateralisation of brain and behaviour, developmental, physiological and neurobiological mechanisms, as well as ecological and evolutionary approaches. We welcome both oral and poster presentations.

For more information, to register and submit your abstract, please visit:

We hope to see you in Groningen!

On behalf of the organising committee,
Sanne Brederoo, University of Groningen