MISSION

The mission of the proactive brain lab is to unravel how the cognitive brain dynamically prepares for upcoming behaviour – and how it uses working memory to do so. We investigate how we filter relevant from irrelevant sensations and how we subsequently retain, select, prioritise, and transform sensory and motor representations ‘in mind’ in service of anticipated goals and (potential) courses of action.

 

We start from the perspective of the brain as a fundamentally dynamic, anticipating, and action-oriented organ. We mostly use non-invasive neuroimaging methodologies with high temporal resolution – such as EEG and eye-tracking – to investigate the governing principles, the interdependent nature, and the neural bases of these core cognitive functions in dynamic settings in healthy human volunteers. We take an integrative focus, bringing together research on working memory, selective attention, timing, decision making, vision, and action.


RESEARCH DIRECTIONS

Below is a selection of complementary research directions that we pursue, each with a selected set of relevant publications (including from the time before the Proactive Brain Lab was founded).

 

When driving by a road sign with directions, one must keep its content ‘in mind’ (in working memory) in order to take the correct exit moments later. As this simple example illustrates, working memory is about the past but for the future.


Taking an action-oriented perspective on cognitive functioning as a starting point, we investigate how we use working memory to anticipate and prepare for upcoming behaviour – and how anticipated task goals sculpt how and what we hold onto in working memory. We move beyond the (often implicit) perspective on working memory as a function whose primary purpose is to “represent" or "store" the past, and instead work from the perspective of working memory that equips us to optimally “prepare” for the future. Seen this way, working memory primarily serves to expand the flexibility of our behavioural repertoire by buffering potentially relevant past sensations to carry these forward to potential future courses of action – enabling effective behaviour in a rich and dynamic world.


Under this general umbrella – and funded by the ERC Starting Grant MEMTICIPATION – we investigate, for example, how attention helps to selects and prioritise relevant internal representations in service of anticipated task-goals; how the (parallel) retention of sensory representations invokes the concurrent planning of (potential) future courses of action; how working memory facilitates multi-tasking and sequential behaviour; how anticipation helps protect internal working memory content from anticipated distraction; and how individual contents in working memory are sculpted by the times at which these are expected to become relevant for behaviour.


Representative publications

  • Concurrent visual and motor selection during visual working memory guided action [link]
  • Output planning at the input stage in visual working memory [link]
  • Looking ahead in working memory to guide sequential behaviour [link]
  • Visual working memory and action: functional links and bi-directional influences [link]
  • Temporal expectations guide dynamic prioritization in visual working memory through attenuated alpha oscillations [link]
  • Planning the potential future during multi-item visual working memory [link]

The brain is situated in a body that is geared for (and evolved during) interaction with the world around us. It is for this reason that cognitive processes – even those directed at internal representations – often leave ‘peripheral fingerprints’. These fingerprints, in turn, can be utilised to track cognitive processes and the associated neural machinery that support them.


One example of this in our work regards our finding that internal selective attention – selecting internal representations in visual working memory – is associated with a bias in miniature eye movements known as microsaccades in the direction of the memorised location associated with selected memory content.


This ‘gaze bias’ provides a nice demonstration that the brain’s system that controls eye movements also participates in the focusing of covert spatial attention – including in working memory. In addition, this opens new opportunities for tracking internal selective attention with high resolution in space and time, and opens new questions regarding the link between neural and microsaccadic signatures of covert attention.


Representative publications

  • Human gaze tracks attentional focusing in memorized visual space [link]
  • Looking ahead in working memory to guide sequential behaviour [link]
  • Goal-directed and stimulus-driven selection of internal representations [link]
  • Multiple spatial frames for immersive working memory [link]
  • Functional but not obligatory link between microsaccades and neural modulation by covert spatial attention [link]

The world is dynamic and so are – and must be – cognitive brain functions. To understand how cognitive processes enable adaptive goal-directed behaviour in our everyday lives, time is of the essence – from safely manoeuvring your bike during rush-hour in Amsterdam, to playing a game of sports or making music.


Understanding the dynamic aspects of everyday cognition – by situating cognition in dynamic and immersive settings – is an important drive when we develop our experimental tasks, decide on our measurement methods, and analyse our experimental results. Anticipation, like any cognitive function, unfolds in time, and capitalises on temporal structure in the world to be ready at the right time – to perceive, act, or to prioritise internal memory representation for upcoming (potential) behaviour. Likewise, working memory is often called upon because we turn away from information, or because objects pass by us or become occluded in dynamic scenes. This is why we predominantly use methods with high temporal resolution (EEG, eye tracking) and also why we have recently started incorporating Virtual Reality in our research, allowing us to approximate more naturalistic, dynamic situations.


Representative publications

  • Anticipated moments: temporal structure in attention [link]
  • Multiple spatial frames for immersive working memory [link]
  • Shielding working-memory representations from temporally predictable external interference [link]
  • Decoding the influence of anticipatory states on visual perception in the presence of temporal distractors [link]
  • Purpose-dependent consequences of temporal expectations serving perception and action [link]
  • Temporal expectations guide dynamic prioritization in visual working memory through attenuated alpha oscillations [link]

In our research, we often use frequency-specific patterns of brain activity – typically measured using scalp electroencephalography (EEG) – to reveal and track the dynamic sensory, motor, and cognitive computations in the human brain. But what is the nature of these neural ‘signatures’ themselves, and what functional roles do they play exactly? This is another line of research that we explore.


Representative publications

  • Neural oscillations: sustained rhythms or transient burst-events? [link]
  • Mnemonic and attentional roles for states of attenuated alpha oscillations in perceptual working memory: a review [link]
  • Supramodal theta, gamma, and sustained fields predict modality-specific modulations of alpha and beta oscillations during visual and tactile working memory [link]
  • Diverse phase relations among neuronal rhythms and their potential function [link]
  • Attentional modulations of somatosensory alpha, beta and gamma oscillations dissociate between anticipation and stimulus processing [link]

We focus on fundamental questions regarding the nature, function, and (neural) mechanisms of central cognitive constructs of working memory, selective attention, timing, decision making, vision, and action. Where possible – and typically in collaboration – we keep an eye on opportunities to ‘apply’ the insights we gain to better understand the preservation/deterioration of cognitive and neural function across various clinical populations, as well as in development and in ageing (and we generally welcome new collaborations with clinicians and lifespan researchers).


Representative publications

  • Dissecting beta-state changes during timed movement preparation in Parkinson’s disease [link]
  • Reduced cortico-muscular beta coupling in Parkinsons disease predicts motor impairment [link]
  • Theta oscillations in 4-year-olds are sensitive to task engagement and task demands [link]
  • Anticipatory neural dynamics of spatial-temporal orienting of attention in younger and older adults [link]
  • Impaired corticomuscular and interhemispheric cortical beta oscillation coupling in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [link]

We look beyond our immediate focus on the proactive nature of cognition and brain function, and participate in the broader scientific enterprise – ranging from reviewing the history of our research field to contributing to the wider reproducibility debate. We share our data, and participate in extracurricular engagement such as scientific image competitions and behind-the-paper coverage of our work.


Representative publications

  • Under the mind’s hood: what we have learned by watching the brain at work [link]
  • Physiological plausibility can increase reproducibility in cognitive neuroscience [link]
  • Image competition: BRAINScapes 2020 [link]
  • Behind the paper post: Mental states inside out: subtle eye movements reveal the 'spotlight' within our inner mind [link]


FUNDING

Our current research program is funded by the European Research Council through the ERC Starting Grant MEMTICIPATION, "Preparing memories for action: how visual working memories are sculpted by their anticipated use", awarded to Freek van Ede. This project runs from Sept 2020 to Sept 2025