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The programme in the winter term 2023/24

December 5, 2023, 11 AM:

Wang, Xiaoqin (Johns Hopkins University): Harmonic Organization of Primate Auditory Cortex

A fundamental structure of sounds encountered in the natural environment is the harmonicity. Harmonicity is an essential component of music found in all cultures. It is also a unique feature of vocal communication sounds such as human speech and animal vocalizations. Harmonics are produced by a variety of acoustic generators and reflectors in natural environments, including vocal apparatuses of humans and animal species as well as music instruments of many types. Given the widespread existence of the harmonicity in many aspects of our hearing environment, it is natural to expect that it be reflected in the evolution and development of the auditory systems of both humans and animals, in particular the auditory cortex. Recent neuroimaging and neurophysiology experiments have identified regions of non-primary auditory cortex in humans and non-human primates that exhibit selective responses to harmonic pitches. Accumulating evidence has also shown that neurons in many regions of the mammalian auditory cortex exhibit characteristic responses to harmonically related frequencies beyond the range of pitch. Taken together, these findings suggest that a fundamental organizational principle of the primate auditory cortex is based on harmonicity. Such an organization can play an important role in speech and music processing by the brain. It may also form the basis of the preference for particular classes of music and voice sounds.


November 28, 2023, 6 PM

Onur Güntürkün (Ruhr-University Bochum): Why birds are smart

Public lecture in Alte Mensa, Wilhelmsplatz

Great apes like chimpanzees are smart and have a large neocortex. Birds like corvids and parrots have much smaller brains and no neocortex. This should cast a dim prospect on their cognitive abilities. But studies of the last two decades revealed there is not a single cognitive ability of chimpanzees with brain weights of ca. 400g that meanwhile was not also demonstrated in corvids with brains of just 12g. How is that possible? This can only be the case if complex cognition developed independently several times in animals with different brain organizations. In my talk I will take you on a scientific journey that aims to identify which neural features really seems to matter for complex cognition and are shared by apes, corvids, and parrots. Astoundingly, although bird and mammalian brains look so different, we will see that both independently evolved similar neural solutions to become smart. It is likely that evolution does not lack creativity; it is just facing a severe limitation of degrees of freedom when wiring a vertebrate brain for sophisticated cognition. As a result, it re-invents the wheel over and over again.



November 23, 2023:

Andre Pittig (University of Göttingen): Translational Psychotherapy in Fear, Anxiety, and Their Disorders

Based on basic and clinical research, translational psychotherapy aims to improve understanding of the fundamental processes underlying the development and treatment of mental disorders with the ultimate goal to improve psychological treatments. Following this agenda, our research focuses on cognitive and behavioral processes of fear, anxiety, and defensive behaviors, which represent the core characteristics of stress-related and anxiety disorders. Key research questions address how maladaptive defensive behaviors can be reduced despite high levels of fear (fear-opposite approach) and the role of threat expectancies as a target for psychological treatment. In this talk, I will present a series of studies combining laboratory-based experiments, smartphone-based everyday assessments, and clinical treatment studies addressing these questions. Finally, I will provide an outlook how our research agenda may facilitate individualized, process-based treatment.

About the speaker: Andre Pittig is a professor of Translational Psychotherapy at the University of Göttingen. He is a licensed psychotherapist and supervisor.

Further info: www.psych.uni-goettingen.de/en/translational/welcome



November 16, 2023:

Christoph Teufel (Cardiff University): Forms of Prediction in the Human Visual System

The idea that predictions shape how we perceive and comprehend the world has become increasingly influential in cognitive, computational, and systems neuroscience. It also forms an important framework for understanding neuropsychiatric disorders. However, the influence of predictions is often exclusively conceptualised in terms of feedback processes, whereby predictions generated in higher-level brain areas exert their influence on lower-level areas within an information-processing hierarchy. This notion excludes from consideration the predictive information that is directly built into the structure of the visual system, and is therefore embedded in the feedforward stream of processing. In my presentation, I will describe a series of computational studies and psychophysical experiments (in both typical observers and patient populations) looking at the role of feedback and feedforward forms of prediction in visual processing. I will conclude that the distinct implementation of each of these forms of prediction in the brain is critical, differentially affecting perceptual performance and representational efficiency.



November 9, 2023:

Marcella Woud (University of Göttingen): A matter of interpretation: Cognitive processing biases in emotional psychopathology

In my work, I examine the extent to which cognitive processing biases should be understood as correlates, predictors, and/or causal risk factors for the development and maintenance of mental disorders. In addition, I examine the mechanisms underlying such biases (e.g., neural and psychophysiological mechanisms). My work focuses on anxiety disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, and depression, and I conduct studies with healthy as well as at-risk and patient samples. In my talk, I will first present a series of studies investigating the predictive validity of such biases in relation to symptoms of psychopathology and stress reactions. I will then present experimental studies and clinical trials in which cognitive biases were manipulated, using computerized training procedures. These studies aimed to investigate to what extent cognitive biases can be modified, and whether such modifications influence symptoms or their analogues. This in turn can shed light on whether such biases can play a causal role in psychopathology and its treatment.



October 25, 2023:

Iiro Jääskeläinen (Aalto University): Reading emotions from distributed patterns of brain activity

Michael Lankeit Lecture Hall, German Primate Center

I will be presenting results from our published and work in progress studies where we have successfully classified emotional states of experimental subjects based on their distributed brain hemodynamic activity patterns measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This has been successful for both basic emotions and social emotions under different experimental conditions. Further, in our recent work in progress we have explored possibilities to classify subtle and mixed emotional reactions during 360-degree video encounters with ingroup vs. outgroup others. The distributed activity patterns, in light of our recent theoretical work, might constitute a key information representing mechanism, thus potentially explaining why the classification works so well.



September 28, 2023, 12.30 PM:

Marlene R Cohen (University of Pittsburgh): Feature interference: a neuronal population hypothesis about limits on cognition 

Lecture Hall West, German Primate Center

Flexible cognition is a hallmark of human behavior, but it comes with limits. There are costs to paying attention to many things or switching between tasks. These costs become even more problematic in the many disorders of the brain that limit cognitive capacity. However, there is limited direct evidence of a physiological basis for these limitations. Identifying one will be important for efforts to repair or reduce limits on cognition. I will present multiple lines of evidence from monkey electrophysiology, human and monkey behavior, and recurrent network modeling suggesting a neuronal mechanism that inflicts a limit on cognition and a cost of flexibility. In a behavioral paradigm designed to measure and manipulate subjects’ belief about the relevance of each of two perceptual tasks, we found that humans and monkeys make less accurate perceptual decisions under task uncertainty. To generate hypotheses about a neuronal basis for the task switching cost, we compared two recurrent neural networks (RNNs), trained to produce the correct choice or to reproduce the choices of macaque subjects. The ‘correct-choice’ RNN learned to flexibly switch tasks without incurring a task switch cost, while the ‘monkey-choice’ RNN displayed the expected cost of task switching. Comparing the activity of the recurrent layers of the two models revealed that the ‘correct-choice’ model maintained information relevant to the two tasks in separate subspaces of neuronal activity. But when the task was uncertain, the two subspaces in the ‘monkey-choice’ model collapsed together, leading to interference between tasks. We confirmed predictions of the model in further behavioral and physiological experiments. These results provide a neuronal mechanism for flexible decision-making in neurotypical subjects, as well as its dysfunction in common neurological disorders. They support the general, tantalizing hypothesis that limits in cognitive capacity arise from interference between the neural representations of different stimuli, tasks, or memories. 



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Antonio Calapai

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