Principal Investigators

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Hakwan Lau, D. Phil

Assistant Professor of Psychology

As the director of the Consciousness and Computation Lab, I am interested in using neuroimaging (fMRI, EEG, MEG), psychophysics and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to test cognitive models of how we become consciously aware of visual stimuli. Some of these models are driven by computational principles, such as how the brain optimally deals with signals and noise in a Bayesian ( i.e. probabilistic) fashion. The models are also informed by empirical research that focuses on the functions of consciousness. My previous findings have led me to think that consciousness does not have too many special functions, in the sense that many tasks that seem to require consciousness could actually also be performed unconsciously, if the suitable conditions are obtained. This has led to the view that consciousness should not be treated as a superior form of information processing; it is just 'different' from unconscious processing. Our goal then, is to pin down these differences.

I am also interested in how conscious perception interacts with and relates to other higher-cognitive functions such as attention, uncertainty reporting and other metacognitive processes.

Contact: hakwan (a) psych.columbia.edu, Consciousness and Computation Lab page

 
 


 

Kevin Ochsner, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Psychology

I am the director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. I received my bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and my Masters degree and Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard University. I has also received postdoctoral training in social psychology at Harvard and functional neuroimaging at Stanford University. My research interests include the psychological and neural processes involved in emotion, pain, self-regulation, self perception, and person perception. All of my work employs a social cognitive neuroscience approach that seeks to integrate the theories and methods of social psychology on the one hand, and cognitive neuroscience on the other.

Contact: ochsner (a) psych.columbia.edu, Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory page

 
 


 

Daphna Shohamy, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Psychology

Being the director of the Learning Lab, my research is focused on the intersection between learning, memory and decision making. How are decisions shaped by past experience? When are decisions guided by explicit knowledge, and when by implicitly learned associations or biases? Are explicit and implicit memories supported by independent cognitive and neural systems (as popular view suggests)? Or, is there some form of cross-talk between them? If so, do the underlying systems cooperate or compete?

To answer these questions, I adopt an integrative approach that draws broadly on neuroscience to make predictions about cognition. Predictions are tested in behavioral and neuroimaging studies in healthy individuals, and in patients with isolated damage to specific brain systems. Neuroimaging studies tell us about the spatial and temporal characteristics of neural mechanisms involved in cognition. Neuropsychological studies augment this approach and provide direct evidence of the necessity of a brain region for specific cognitive processes. Converging evidence from these complementary approaches produces a fuller picture of the cognitive and neural processes involved, and necessary, for different aspects of behavior.

Contact: shohamy (a) psych.columbia.edu, Learning Lab page

 
 


 

Ed Smith, Ph.D.

Professor of Psychology

I am interested in the cognitive and neural bases of working memory, a system that briefly stores and processes information on line; this mechanism seems to lie at the heart of higher mental processes. Recently, I have been focusing on the "executive processes" associated with working memory, particularly (1) the process of selectively attending to relevant information in memory while inhibiting irrelevant information, and (2) the process of switching attention from one mental representation or process to another. Much of the research involves the neuroimaging of normal young participants, but some of the research on attentional processes involves studies with special populations, including normal older participants, patients with Alzheimer's Disease (AD), and depressed people. Another fundamental mechanism of interest is our ability to categorize novel objects as instances of familiar categories. This mechanism is central to all aspects of cognition. Again, some of the research involves special populations, including AD patients, frontal patients, and amnesiac patients.

Contact: eesmith (a) psych.columbia.edu, Personal page

 
   

 

Graduate Students

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Jason Buhle

5th year Graduate Student

My research interests focus on the endogenous control of attention and emotion. Several paradigms under development attempt to better understand the frontal systems that enable sensory inhibition and focused attention on a trial-by-trial basis, using fMRI and ERP. We hope to more clearly illuminate individual differences in these abilities, determine their predictive value in real-world settings, and develop cognitive strategies and training paradigms that may engender better performance. In a project funded by the Mind and Life Institute, I am also considering the training of attention and emotion in the context of advanced meditators.

Contact: jtb2102 (a) columbia.edu

 
 


 

Bryan Denny

5th year Graduate Student

Broadly, I'm interested in investigating how humans engage in various forms of emotion regulation and social cognition. One current goal is to determine when and how one can learn to regulate emotion more effectively. Further, I'm interested in when and how biofeedback facilitates emotion regulation and how individual differences impact the above phenomena. I'm also interested in the nature of the self and the cognitive and neural representations of the self and others. I address the above questions using behavioral, psychophysiological, and neuroscientific (fMRI) methods.

Contact: bryand (a) paradox.psych.columbia.edu

 
 


 

Dobromir Rahnev

5th year Graduate Student

I employ tools from cognitive neuroscience such as fMRI, TMS, MEG, modeling, and psychophysics to investigate the neural basis of perceptual decision making. I use MATLAB to analyze the data and employ rigorous methods such as Bayesian model comparison and signal detection theory. One of my most exciting findings is that lack of attention leads to disproportionately high subjective visibility ratings which may have implications about the illusion that we 'see' the whole visual scene when studies show that we can only process a few objects at a time.

Contact: rahnev (a) psych.columbia.edu (personal webpage)

 
 


 

Jen Silvers

5th year Graduate Student

In collaboration with my advisor, Prof. Ochsner, I am working on a series of projects examining the behavioral, physiological and neural bases of social rejection/social threat and emotion regulation. Within this realm, I am particularly interested in how the ability to regulate one's emotions (in a social or non-social context) develops over the lifespan, beginning with the prenatal environment and continuing over the course of childhood and adolescence. I am additionally collaborating on a study examining social rejection and emotion regulation in Borderline Personality Disorder.

Contact: jas2222 (a) columbia.edu

 
 


 

Jared Van Snellenberg

5th year Graduate Student

Broadly speaking, I am interested in how it is that the brain instantiates our internal mental experiences. More specifically, I'm interested in the neural underpinnings of learning and memory, especially working memory, long-term memory, and classification learning. I also have a strong interest in the disturbances of cognition, particularly memory, observed in patients with schizophrenia.

Contact: jxv1 (a) columbia.edu, www.scan.psych.columbia.edu/jared

 
 


 

G. Elliott Wimmer

5th year Graduate Student

My research looks at different learning systems in the brain and how they influence decision making. Prior to joining the lab, I was involved in work investigating the role of affect in decision making; for example, how activity in subcortical regions like the striatum predicts economic choices. I am currently interested in applying this background to new neuroimaging and patient studies of how dynamic learning processes influence behavior; e.g., how a striatal system associated with value learning interacts with a medial temporal system associated with relational encoding.

Contact: gew2105 (a) columbia.edu, www.columbia.edu/~gew2105

 
 


 

Juliet Davidow

4th year Graduate Student

I am interested in the behavioral and brain mechanisms involved in human learning and decision-making over the course of childhood and adolescence.

Contact: jyd2104 (a) columbia.edu

 
 


 

Teal Eich

4th year Graduate Student

Broadly speaking, I am interested in using behavioral and neuroimaging techniques to investigate the ways in which working and long term memory, social decision making, and cognitive control are altered by acute stress and different kinds emotional processes.

Contact: tse4 (a) columbia.edu

 
 


 

Brian Maniscalco

4th year Graduate Student

I am interested in studying the cognitive and neural bases of visual awareness, metacognition, and decision making: What is it that makes us aware of some kinds of visual information processing but not others? How does this awareness allow us to evaluate the quality of visual processing in a metacognitively useful way? And how does it all come together to allow us to make informed decisions about the world? My research uses psychophysical experiments to address these questions, employing cognitive neuroscience tools such as fMRI and TMS as well as analytical methods such as signal detection theory and information theoretic model selection.

Contact: bsm2105 (a) columbia.edu

 
 


 

Jenna Reinen

4th year Graduate Student

My research explores the neural and cognitive bases of learning and memory, and how these systems are affected by pain and stress. I work with at the SCAN Unit and with the Learning Lab, where some of my current projects will utilize behavioral, imaging, and neuropsychological methods to study the impact of pain upon learning, decision making and memory system interaction.

Contact: jr2340 (a) columbia.edu

 
 


 

Bruce Doré

3rd year Graduate Student

 

Contact: brucedore (at) gmail.com

 
   

 

Postdoctoral Fellows

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Alumni

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Josh Davis, Ph.D. (2008)

Term Assistant Professor of Psychology, Barnard College of Columbia University

Josh Davis is the Director of the Embodiment Lab at Barnard College. In The Embodiment Lab, hypotheses are explored that flow from the assumption that the mind exists to serve the body. Several implications of this philosophical stance that have guided our research are: 1) that it is not only true that the mind can influence the body, but that the body can influence the mind; 2) when we think or feel, our mental representations will be directly related to perception and action; and 3) that studying the perceptual and motor functions of various thoughts, feelings, and brain states can help us to understand why, when, and how they come about.

Contact: jid2001 (at) columbia.edu

 
 


 

Ajay Satpute, Ph.D. (2008, UCLA)

 

Contact: abs2180 (at) columbia.edu

 
 


 

Hedy Kober, Ph.D. (2009)

Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Yale University

I am broadly interested in the psychological and neural mechanisms underlying desire, and its regulation. In every day life, we experience desire for food items, sex, and money. For former drug abusers, moments of extreme desire (e.g. drug craving) often lead to relapse - underscoring our need to develop ways to regulate these cravings. My current research focuses on finding strategies that could be effectively deployed by smokers, dieters, and methamphetamine abusers to ameliorate their craving, and on describing the neural mechanisms underlying such effective regulation of desire.

"We are what we think. All that we are, arises through our thoughts. With our thoughts we create the world."
- The Buddha

Contact: hedy.kober (a) yale.edu

 
 


 

Lauren Leotti, Ph.D. (2009)

Postdoctoral Fellow at the Delgado Lab, Rutgers University, NJ

I received my BA in psychology from Georgetown University in 2003. While living in the Washington D.C. area I worked in the Cognitive Neuroscience Section of the NINDS and as a research assistant for Children's National Medical Center. My research in the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Georgetown University focused on cognitive control and attention regulation in special populations, such as children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders. Presently, my research interests lie in the mutual influence of cognitions and emotions, how these interact to affect one's perception of aversive events, and how such an interaction develops and is maintained. After my Ph.D., I transferred to the Delgado Lab at Rutgers where I continue to study how perception of personal control influences decision-making and emotion regulation.

Contact: laurenleotti (at) psychology.rutgers.edu

 
 


 

Jamil Zaki, Ph.D. (2010)

Postdoctoral Fellow with Jason Mitchell at the Harvard Center for Brain Science

I am broadly interested in social cognition, and specifically in the way that people are able to understand each other's emotions. Prof. Ochsner and I study the neural, behavioral, and physiological bases of this ability, known as "empathic accuracy." Additionally, I am working on projects exploring the bases of empathic deficits in Autism Spectrum Disorders, and the relationships between empathic accuracy and the health of social relationships.

Contact: joz2102 (a) columbia.edu

 
 


 

Lauren Atlas, Ph.D. (2011)

 

Lauren began her doctoral work at Columbia University in September of 2006. She completed her undergraduate education in 2003 at the University of Chicago, where she worked with John Cacioppo in the Social Neuroscience Laboratory. After graduating, she worked as fMRI Project Coordinator in Stanford's Mood and Anxiety Disorders Lab under the direction of Ian Gotlib. Her graduate work takes a mechanistic approach to the study of how expectancies modulate affective experience. Current projects use fMRI and psychophysiology methodologies to examine brain pathways mediating the relationship between expectancy, nociceptive stimulation, and perceived pain.

Contact: lya2103 (a) columbia.edu

 
 


 

Julie Spicer, Ph.D. (2011)

 

I am interested in how we can flexibly control our thoughts, feelings and actions and the cognitive and neural mechanisms that subserve this ability. Related cognitive processes include: holding appropriate responses online (working memory), overriding inappropriate thoughts and actions with adaptive thoughts and actions (response inhibition), and detecting conflict between inappropriate responses and adaptive responses (response conflict). I am also interested in examining conditions that may serve to bias conflict and control. One recent direction has been to investigate the neural circuitry under conditions where learning of motivational contingencies or rule-based contingencies occurs beneath awareness. Behavioral responses from cognitive tasks together with measures of brain activity from fMRI serve as the primary forms of measurement.

Contact: jas2161 (a) columbia.edu

 
 


 

Matthew Davidson, M.A. (2011)

 

I am a first-year graduate student working with Dr. Lau's Consciousness and Computation Lab and Dr. Thesen at NYU Medical Center. I graduated from UVA in 1999 with a degree in computer science, and spent a few years as a programmer before returning to academia to study neuroscience. I am broadly interested in awareness, volition, agency, meditative changes, and the possibilities for human brain augmentation.

Contact: matthew (a) psych.columbia.edu

 
   

 

External collaborators

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Hedy Kober, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Yale University

"We are what we think. All that we are, arises through our thoughts. With our thoughts we create the world."
- The Buddha

Contact: hedy.kober (a) yale.edu

 
 


 

Tor Wager, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Colorado

I am the director of the Cognitive and Affective Control Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, CO. My primary research interest is in the neural and psychological bases of cognitive and affective control. My research quantifies behavioral performance and brain activity--measured primarily using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)--to investigate the neural mechanisms by which humans have flexible control over their behavior. This approach emphasizes the mutual constraints on interpretation afforded by studying behavior and functional anatomy at the same time.

My main research interests along those lines are:

  • mechanisms of emotion and affect regulation
  • the relationship between affective regulation and cognitive control
  • relationships among various hypothesized cognitive control processes: selective attention, inhibition, task switching.

I am also interested in developing image analysis and statistical modeling methods that will improve our ability to use fMRI, in particular, as a research tool in cognitive and affective neuroscience.

Contact: tor.wager (a) colorado.edu, Cognitive and Affective Control Laboratory

 
   

 

 

 

 

 

Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience Unit
Deparment of Psychology
Columbia University
406 Schermerhorn Hall
1190 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10027