Projects of the Third Cohort (2023–2026)

Part I: Meta-Projects

Project 1-META: Aphantasia and Cognitive Substitution

Project Leader: Albert Newen

PhD-Student: Christian Oliver Scholz

Philosophical project: For most people, the ability to visualize appears to be an integral part of their everyday cognition. However, recent studies suggest that approximately 3.9% of the general population are unable to voluntarily generate visual mental imagery, a condition referred to as aphantasia (Dance et al., 2022; Zeman et al., 2015). Contrary to the predictions of theories that ascribe mental imagery a central role for our cognition (e.g., Nanay, 2023), aphantasics are not gravely cognitively impaired (Zeman, 2020) and are even able to solve tasks that were previously assumed to necessarily require the use of visual mental imagery, such as mental rotation tasks (Pounder et al., 2022; Crowder, 2018) or visual working memory tasks (Bainbridge et al., 2021; Jacobs et al., 2018). Thus, although aphantasics are unable to visualize, this does not imply an impairment with respect to a range of tasks that were supposed to rely on this ability, suggesting that aphantasics are substituting their lack of visualization by means of alternative cognitive strategies. In my project, I am investigating the condition of aphantasia to better understand the actual importance of visual mental imagery for our cognition and analyze the alternative strategies used by aphantasics to solve visual mental imagery tasks.

Project 2-META: Mind wandering and the automatic conscious mind

Project Leader: Tobias Schlicht

PhD-Student: Yizhi Li

Philosophical project: The conscious mind is typically considered an active controller, engaged in intentional imagining, reasoning, judging, and decision-making constantly. However, this characterization seems at odds with the phenomenon of mind wandering, where the conscious mind seems to escape the intentional control and drift freely. Despite appearing as insignificant interludes between or within those controlled mental activities, psychological studies indicate that mind-wandering states occupy 30%-50% of our waking conscious experiences and have significant implications for daily performance. As such, mind wandering exposes a largely overlooked yet crucial automatic facet of the conscious mind. This project aims to integrate knowledge on mind wandering from various scientific disciplines and philosophy to address the following intimately related questions: What is mind wandering? How does it fit into the organization of the conscious mind? What is its functional role in relation to other mental phenomena? The philosophical implications of mind wandering for our broader understanding of the conscious mind and mental agency will also be explored.

Part II: Perception 

Project 3-PERC: Rational Decisions and Doxastic Attitudes in the Face of Epistemically and Personally Transformative Experiences

Project Leader: Peter Brössel

PhD-Student: Matteo Cerasa

Philosophical project: Epistemically transformative experiences (ETEs) and personally transformative experiences (PTEs) are defined, respectively, as experiences that give access to contents supposedly inaccessible without first undergoing them and experiences that might significantly change the values of the agent (Paul 2014). Suggestive examples include losing or acquiring a sensory modality or a body part, deciding to have a child, and moving abroad. ETEs and PTEs have been considered an outstanding challenge to standard accounts of rationality in epistemology and decision theory. Indeed, the prospect of such experiences seems to prevent agents from rational deliberation, as in these cases – so it is argued – agents lack and can’t cognitively recover the relevant subjective contents to set their values, or their values might drastically change following the very decision. This research project aims to provide a theoretical evaluation of the notions of ETEs and PTEs, and the main hypothesis is that, although philosophically important, transformative experiences can be accounted for in some suitable theory of rationality. Specifically, it is argued that, in the face of ETEs and PTEs, agents are in a risky position and in a severe state of uncertainty, but this doesn’t forbid applying rational norms to their doxastic attitudes and decisions. For this purpose, on the one hand, a version of permissivism (Pettigrew 2022) is supported, and, on the other hand, comparing and building from existing proposals (e.g., Bradley 2017, Pettigrew 2019, Weirich 2021), formal tools are explored as philosophically justified solutions for some of the problems raised by transformative experiences.

Project 4-PERC: Embodied olfactory and gustatory experiences : Olfaction and taste perception under metabolism

Project Leader: Ursula Stockhorst

PhD-Student: Syrine Rekhis

Bio-psychological project: We want to empirically investigate unexpected features of the olfactory and the gustatory perception which can be described as embodiment due to being shaped by the hormonal system. There is evidence that both, the olfactory and the gustatory system, are not only sensitive to external stimuli (volatile odorants and soluble tastants) but also to our internal metabolic state. Thus, they get a new regulatory role via receptors for nutrients (mainly glucose) and gastrointestinal hormones on (Palouzier-Paulignan et al. 2012, Dotson et al, 2013). We find receptors for anorexigenic hormones (e.g., insulin, leptin) that induce a decrease of food intake, and orexigenic hormones (e.g., neuropeptide Y, orexin) stimulating an increase. Interestingly, rats lacking primary olfactory neurons are protected against fat-diet induced insulin resistance and obesity (Riera et al. 2017), and impaired taste sensitivity was reported to play a role in the pathophysiology of obesity (Rohde et al, 2020). We worked on CNS-mediated actions of insulin using classical conditioning applying peripheral (Stockhorst et al. 1999, 2004) and intranasal insulin (Stockhorst et al. 2011). We aim at examining embodied olfactory and taste performances, e.g., by comparing perception in fasted vs. satiated states (with satiety induced by different nutrients), and assess its association with metabolic parameters (e.g., blood glucose). We also aim for addressing the reciprocal communication between perception and metabolism by asking how olfaction and taste affect metabolism.

Project 5-PERC: Plasticity of Pigeon Body Plan: The Integration of a New Robotic Arm into a Body Schema

Project Leader: Onur Güntürkün

PhD-Student: Anıl Bayindir

Biopsychological project (Animal cognition/psychological neuroscience): Previous studies investigated the changes in the neural body representation associated with tool-use learning (Obayashi et al. 2001; Quallo et al. 2009; Kieliba et al. 2021). The purpose of our study is to investigate tool-use behavior in pigeons and examine the plasticity of their body plan. Given that the body schema of pigeons doesn’t anticipate having arms, what happens when pigeons wear an artificial robotic arm? How does the pigeon perceive the robotic arm? Does it see the arm as a part of its own body or as an external tool? What are the neural mechanisms underlying the process of learning and adapting to use the new robotic arm? Do pigeons incorporate the robotic arm into their pre-existing neural representation of the body plan? To address these research questions, we will employ machine learning methods for analyzing behavioral patterns and employ fMRI neuroimaging techniques.

Part III: Situated Agency and its Evaluation (Morality)

Project 6-AGEN: Situated Evaluation of Actions: Coupled Degrees of Freedom of Sensory Sampling and Action

Project Leader: Peter König

Co-Leader: Achim Stephan

PhD-Student: John Jairo Madrid Carvajal

Behavior studies and theory formation: In previous research, we investigated human decisions in a complex shelf sorting task allowing many degrees of freedom (Keshava et al., 2022). Eye-hand coordination is a crucial element of everyday tasks. Previous work has shown that gaze fixations precede manual action to plan and orient hand movements. Such a sequence would be compatible with a typical sandwich model, implying a strict sequence of sensory sampling, decision, and action. However, it’s not fully understood how eyes and hands coordinate in a larger spatial context since research is mainly done on sedentary tasks under constrained settings. We will ask participants to perform tasks in a virtual environment to explore the interplay of gaze guidance of reaching movements in naturalistic settings. These include pick-and-place tasks to sort objects on a life-size shelf and/or a naturalistic setting with daily chores. This allows concurrently measuring eye, hand, and head positions during task performance. The relative timing and coupling of sensory sampling and action will inform us on the validity of the sandwich model or competing models of embodied cognition. Specifically, we will use a newly developed approach to determine the dimensionality of the degrees of freedom of the individual and combined systems. This approach allows differentiating between a causal chain of events (as suggested by the sandwich model) or a joint coding of sensation and action (as suggested by accounts of situated cognition).

Keshava A, Nezami FN, Neumann H, Izdebski K, Schüler Th, König P (2022) Low-level Action Schemas Support Gaze Guidance Behavior for Action Planning and Execution in Novel Tasks

Project 7-AGEN: Action Control – Is the Automatic Approach Bias Embodied?

Project Leaders: Peter König & Sven Walter

PhD-Student: Aitana Grasso Cladera

Behavior studies in virtual reality: The valence of a stimulus is tightly coupled to the (re)actions by subjects. This applies to the influence of stimulus valence and mood on eye movements (Kaspar et al. 2015) as well as to observations in the Approach–Avoidance Task. Here, addicts approach rather than avoid drug-related cues, and they approach them faster than they avoid them. However, in part due to the lack of a conceptually sound philosophical account and the variation in technical implementations that often use rather abstract actions, the data base is far from clear and the mechanisms behind this phenomenon are not yet understood. In recent submitted work we could demonstrate that congruent bodily interaction with images in the priming phase fosters visual interaction in the subsequent exploration phase (Solzbacher et al. 2022). The project takes the next step and uses a virtual reality lab. Only in such naturalistic conditions the actions performed are unambiguous. They perform either full body movements approaching or avoiding objects, other avatars, and locations with different valence. We will record and analyze behavioral measures as well as eye movements and pupil diameter. Further, this is paired with conceptual work regarding philosophical accounts of embodied agency.

Kaspar K, Ramos Gameiro R, & König P (2015). Feeling good, searching the bad: Positive priming increases attention and memory for negative stimuli on webpages. DOI:10.1016/j.chb.2015.07.020. Comput Hum Behav 53: 332–343

Solzbacher, J., Czeszumski, A., Walter, S., & König, P. (2022). Evidence for the embodiment of the automatic approach bias. Frontiers in Psychology.

Part IV: Situated Emotions and Social Cognition

Project 8-SESC: “Should I help or should I go?” The Social Dynamics of Illness in Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) in the Wild – A Field Observation Study

Project Leader: Simone Pika

PhD-Student: Alessandra Mascaro

Situated approaches on cognition view cognition as the outcome of reciprocal real-time interactions of embodied agents with their environments (Stephan, Walter, & Wilutzky, 2014). However, how is cognition extended when aspects of the familiar social environment are changing? Recently, Mascaro and colleagues (2022) observed that wounded chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) in the wild caught and applied insects to their own but also the wounds of other non-related conspecifics. This behavior may qualify as prosocial behavior, which has been defined as an action that is intended to benefit another individual, and seems to be driven in humans by empathic concerns for each other (Bartal, Decety, & Mason, 2011). It thus may be possible that changes in the social environment result in the innovation of new behaviors and hence are a mirror into behavioral plasticity and situated cognition.

Here we will systematically test the hypothesis that wound-tending behaviors are extended by aspects of the social environment. To do so, we will apply a powerful combination of systematic behavioral observations, endocrinological and parasite analyses to systematically investigate whether and how changes in individuals’ behavior influence the existing social dynamics and interactions.

Mascaro, A., Southern, L. M., Deschner, T., & Pika, S. (2022). Application of insects to wounds of self and others by chimpanzees in the wild. Current Biology, 32, R97-R115. 

Project 9-SESC: Separation Anxiety Symptoms and their Social Situatedness: The Role of Cross Cultural Norms and Differences

Project Leaders: Babett Voigt & Silvia Schneider

PhD-Student: Leonard Konstantin Kulisch

There are different cultural norms when and how children should show first autonomy and may be separated from their primary caregiver (Schneider & Blatter-Meunier 2019). We will investigate cultural norms and their relation to separation anxiety symptoms in children i.e., the fear over being away from the caregiver. Firstly, we will test the theory that parents from different countries (individualistic vs. collectivistic) differ in the perception of the same child behavior as more or less pathological (Weisz et al. 1988). An online survey approach will be used to manipulate norm salience and measure value orientation as well as pathology perception of vignettes portraying children with separation anxiety disorder. This may be one way to explain large prevalence differences of separation anxiety disorder across countries (Silove et al. 2015). Secondly, we will investigate the influence of cultural norms on actual child behaviors and symptoms. This relationship may be driven through shared child socialization goals that vary between cultural context and shape parenting behaviors (Bond & Lun 2014). Finally, we aim to uncover universal processes in the development and maintenance of separation anxiety symptoms. It is hoped that the study of cultural differences will also reveal cultural similarities. We will investigate the core behavioral, emotional, cognitive, or physiological mechanisms of separation anxiety that pertain across cultures (Schneider & Blatter-Meunier 2019).

Project 10-SESC: Mindreading, Mindshaping, and Mindexpecting: A Situated Framework for Understanding Crowd’s Mind and Behavior

Project Leader: Julia Wolf

Co-Leader: Achim Stephan

PhD-Student: William Angkasa

This project presents a comprehensive framework that strives to reconcile mindreading and mindshaping hypotheses for understanding collective mind and behavior. While existing theories in crowd psychology focus on the role of social identity and the cognitive mechanisms underlying individual and collective actions, this work goes beyond by proposing a novel concept: ‘mindexpecting.’ The framework is grounded in situated cognition and affectivity, which posits that the mind (in all of its cognitive, emotional, perceptual, and social capacities) is an expression of the complex, dynamic interactions between an agent and their proper environmental structures. We argue that understanding the interplay between mindreading and mindshaping through the lens of situated cognition and affectivity is essential for a more comprehensive view of crowd psychology. Central to our argument is the concept of “expectations,” seen as a bridge between mindreading and (agent-based) mindshaping, where our expectations of others’ mental states influence how we think, feel and behave, which, in turn, shape others’ “expected minds.” This dynamic relationship is argued to be relevant in crowd events, social movements, and various societal contexts, where expectations are shared, exchanged, and/or even imposed upon the participating members. We apply the proposed hypothesis to re-analyze the social identity approach to crowd psychology and extend it to crowds in social movements. Ultimately, this project aims to provide a more nuanced and integrated approach to understanding how collective mind and behavior unfold in complex, real-world situations.

Post-Doc Project: Understanding Perspectives – Social Cognition and Pretend Play

Post-Doc: Julia Wolf

Many aspects of social cognition require being able to deal with different perspectives: we attribute beliefs to others which differ from our own, we can realise that someone knows something which we do not, and we can appreciate that someone evaluates things differently from us. Not only is perspective taking a core ability in social cognition, it also poses a number of cognitive challenges. For example, there is evidence indicating that young children struggle with perspective taking, and that this might be what makes the False Belief Task – one of the seminal tests in research on the development of social cognition – so difficult for children under the age of 4 (Perner et al. 2002).
Starting from examining the role of perspective taking within belief attribution (a topic I worked on in my PhD), I examine the development of perspective taking in social cognition and pretend play. I am concerned with the question of how perspective taking develops. In doing so I consider the extent to which perspective taking can be scaffolded by the environment, and how this situationally supported perspective taking is internalised in development My aim is to extend this account of perspective taking beyond the social context and to answer the question of whether there is one overarching ability of perspective taking – extending from interpersonal to intrapersonal cases, or whether different phenomena labelled as perspective taking should better be understood as posing distinct challenges.

Part V: Situated Linguistic Understanding / Communication

Project 11-LING: Language and Experiential Insight in Limit Situations of Depersonalisation and Derealisation

Project Leader: Nikola Kompa

PhD-Student: Kirill Leshchinskii

Philosophical project: Feelings of depersonalisation (dp) and derealisation (dr) are under-acknowledged and under-explored (Ciaunica et al. 2023) despite high prevalence in both clinical and nonclinical population (Yang et al. 2022). The difficulty of describing these virtually ineffable states (Sierra 2009) has posed a major challenge for sufferers to make sense of their condition, and for clinicians to ‘empathically understand’ (Jaspers 1913; Fernandez/Stanghellini 2024) patients. Yet so far there is no comprehensive philosophical study (cf. Radovic/Radovic 2002) of the nature and function of language used in describing these feelings. This study is aimed to develop a philosophical account of language and understanding in dp/dr by adopting an existential-phenomenological approach (Heidegger 1982; Gendlin 1995, 2017). Specifically, we will explore the phenomenon of experiential insight and the capacity of language to express and enable such an insight in first- and second-person modes of understanding. One working hypothesis of the project will be that insight comes into being when the mind (intellectual understanding), the body (implicit situational understanding), and the feeling (affective understanding) constitute a harmonious whole. This could explain why, e.g., merely theoretical attempts at comprehending dp/dr tend to fail; and also why sufferers are often adept at understanding and communicating with each other (Simeon/Abugel 2023). The epistemic import of affectivity in insight comprehension is further suggested by a distinct feeling of meaningfulness accompanying insight experience (Zwicky 2019), and the correlation between a lack of insight and ‘deaffectialisation’ (Medford 2012), also known as ‘emotional numbing’, inherent in dp/dr. A second working hypothesis will be that a language capable of capturing experiential insight must be of a similar gestalt structure and be rooted in bodily-situational experiencing (which implies that such language necessarily transcends patterns or concepts). Metaphorical and poetic language will be proposed as the exemplars; not accidentally, these are the two most prevalent modes of expressing dp/dr experiences (Francis 2023). Finally, practical and theoretical implications of the developed account will be considered for the psychopathology of depersonalisation and the philosophy of mind/cognition, respectively.

Project 12-LING: The Situatedness of Imagination

Project Leader: Markus Werning

PhD-Student: Sofia Pedrini

This research aims to develop a philosophical account of the situatedness of “experiential imagination” (Peacocke 1985; Walton 1990; Dokic and Arcangeli 2015), using the phenomenological analysis (Husserl 2001, 2005; Sartre, 2004; Casey, 2000) to clarify the nature of imagination and investigate its epistemic powers and constraints. By offering phenomenological clarifications to the analytic philosophy of imagination, the goal is to contribute to current debates on imaginative immersion (Schellenberg 2013; Liao and Doggett 2014; Chasid 2017, 2021), the nature of the imaginative content (Tye 1991; Kind 2001, 2016; Abraham 2020), and thought experiments (Brown 1991; Norton 1996; Gendler 2000, 2010; Hopp 2014; Wiltsche 2018). Through these contributions, I will give an original perspective on the relationship between imagination and knowledge. Along the lines of the aforementioned philosophical debates, I will develop the notion of situatedness of imagination by answering the following research questions: (1) Once we have defined imagination, how can we account for the role of our body and self in it? In other words, to what extent is imagination situated in our body? (2) What are the epistemic constraints on the representational content of our imagination? (3) What is the role of imagination in our epistemological practices (e.g. thought experiment)? In what terms is it possible to derive knowledge from the imagination?