Projects of the Third Cohort (2023–2026)

The third and last cohort of our RTG will start in June 2023 and will end in May 2026. We are currently advertising our call for application. The application deadline is the 31st of January, 2023. You are very much welcome to apply for one or two of the projects below or to share this information with anyone interested.

Part I: Meta-Projects

Project 1-META: Levels of Understanding Oneself and Understanding Others: From Situational Abilities to Internal Representations

Project Leader: Albert Newen

Philosophical project: Discussions in philosophy about the nature of self-consciousness/self-understanding (Neisser 1988; Bermúdez 1998; Metzinger 2009; Newen & Vogeley 2003; Newen 2018) and the understanding of other minds (Goldman 2006; Hutto & Gallagher 2008) have been independent. One working hypothesis is that we rely on the same representational tools to develop self-understanding as well as understanding of others. This view is supported by overlapping relevant neural correlates (Decety & Sommerville 2003; Northoff & Bermpohl 2004; Lombardo et al. 2010). But there is no integrative theoretical framework which accounts for this interdependence. There is only a debate about ontogenetic priority of self-understanding over understanding others (e.g. Carruthers 2009) while we suggest a close interdependence and parallel development in ontogeny. The second working hypothesis is that the person model theory (Newen 2015; Coninx & Newen 2018) can be developed into such a naturalistic and integrative theory of self-models and person models of others. The person model theory needs to be unfolded to enable us to describe the ontogenetic development of both abilities (of understanding oneself and others). They start out as nonrepresentational abilities which develop into abilities anchored in non-linguistic internal mental representations before they reach the level of linguistically anchored representations. Furthermore, the ontogenetic perspective will be combined with a phylogenetic perspective. 

Project 2-META: Predictive Processing and Social Cognition

Project Leader: Tobias Schlicht

Philosophical project: Although many 4E accounts propose ways in which body and environment or situational factors contribute to social understanding (Gallagher 2005, 2017; Zahavi 2014), their rejection of more traditional representational accounts (theory-theory and simulation-theory) often fails to specify in any detail the brain’s contribution to social cognition. Predictive Processing (PP) accounts provide exactly such a theory of cognitive brain function and claim their framework can unify perception, action, and cognition in terms of prediction error minimization (Friston 2010; Hohwy 2013; Clark 2016). While proponents of this framework have only started to apply this to social cognition (Michael & de Bruin 2019; Veissière et al. 2020; Dolega, Schlicht & Dennett 2020), with sometimes wide-ranging claims regarding the explanatory power of this framework for our explanation of social cognition, it is not clear whether 4E and PP accounts are compatible. This project intends to investigate the flexibility, compatibility and interdependencies between these approaches to make progress in our understanding of social cognition. Special emphasis will be placed on (the attribution of) mental representations and the question whether PP can provide a unique alternative explanation of social cognition.

Part II: Perception 

Project 3-PERC: Rational Perceptual Contents in Perception-Action Coupling

Project Leader: Peter Brössel

Philosophical project: The belief-desire model for explaining action and decision lies at the heart of the “sandwich model”: cognition (consisting of symbolic representations) is the abstract and amodal “filing” that mediates between perception and action which are both consisting of modal, non-abstract sensorimotor information. Standard theories of rationality in philosophy presuppose this model and that the inferential logical relations can only exist between symbolic representations. Embodied theories of cognition insist on a perception-action coupling (Barsalou 1999, 2008; Pfeifer & Bongard 2007). In their most straightforward form, they are sometimes characterized as pushme-pullyou representations (Millikan 1995). This project aims at capturing the informational and motivational elements of rational action and decision in terms of non-symbolic, perceptual representations (Brössel 2017; Poth & Brössel 2020). The challenges are (i) to show that non-symbolic perceptual representations are closely interconnected and that we can describe inferential relations between them, (ii) to show that direct perception-action couplings can fulfil standards of rationality, and (iii) that perception can anchor rational beliefs. The envisioned account should enable us to disclose similarities between mental capacities, here the ability of perceptual experiences with perceptual contents, of humans and animals (Nanay 2013).

Project 4-PERC: Embodied Olfactory Experiences: Olfaction under Metabolism

Project Leader: Ursula Stockhorst

Bio-psychological project: We want to empirically investigate unexpected features of the olfactory system which can be described as embodiment due to being shaped by the hormonal system. There is evidence that the olfactory system is not only sensitive to external volatile odorants but also to our internal metabolic state. Thus, the olfactory system gets a new regulatory role via receptors for nutrients (mainly glucose) and gastrointestinal hormones on primary olfactory neurons, olfactory mucosa, and olfactory bulbs (Palouzier-Paulignan et al. 2012): 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). We worked on CNS-mediated actions of insulin using classical conditioning using peripheral (Stockhorst et al. 1999, 2004) and intranasal insulin (Stockhorst et al. 2011). We now examine embodied olfactory performance, e.g., by comparing olfactory perception in fasting vs. satiated states with satiety induced by different nutrients, and assess its association with metabolic parameters (e.g., blood glucose). We also aim for a connection to our empathy studies (see report A 3.17: Dali Gamsakhurdashvili) and ask whether food-intake modifies empathy. 

Project 5-PERC: The Development of Self-Representations: Mechanisms and Scaffolding Conditions of Mirror Self-Recognition in Pigeons 

Project Leader: Onur Güntürkün

Biopsychological project (Animal cognition/psychological neuroscience): Mirror self-recognition (MSR) is often taken as an experimental proof of self-awareness and is limited to humans and few other species (Gallup 1970; Prior et al. 2008; Buniyaadi et al. 2020). Is this ability a unitary cognitive process or is it constituted by a combination of cognitive building blocks (de Waal et al. 2005)? We assume that MSR depends on at least two aptitudes. The first is the ability to detect the correlation between own movements and those in the mirror (de Waal 2019) (aptitude #1). The second is the cognitive capability to subsequently register that the mirror image is a reflection of oneself (aptitude #2). Pigeons seem to master the first part of the task but fail at the second (Toda & Watanabe 2008; Uchino & Watanabe 2014). Such species are often disturbed by their mirror image but fail to recognize why. We thus could experimentally identify which factors govern aptitude #1, and whether this ability can be trained and what effect unfolds from such a training. We aim to characterize aptitude #1 and test the development of full MSR based on its scaffolding conditions. To this end, instead of mirrors we will use a monitor under two conditions: 1) A pigeon approaches a food bowl in front of the monitor. On the monitor it sees another pigeon approaching from the other side its own food bowl. Based on pilot studies we do not expect our test pigeon to hesitate to feed on the food. 2) The same situation but with the test bird seeing itself approaching in the monitor. In this second condition, we expect pigeons to hesitate to walk towards the “uncanny stranger”, based on aptitude #1. We then will i) gradually delay the self-reflection or ii) alter the reflected image of the individual, until the “uncanny stranger” effect vanishes. Then, we will train the animals on their aptitude #1 to test for the plasticity of this cognitive process. We subsequently will explore if aptitude #2 is affected by this training.

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

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 shores. 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

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

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

Clinical and social psychology: 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 young children. To do so, we not only account for general cultural norms but also determine the individual acceptance of the perceived cultural norms (Margraf et al. 2020). Furthermore, we will relate separation anxiety symptoms to attributes of the education systems (e.g. admission to kindergarten) of several countries (Lavallee et al. 2011). Parents of infants in different European and non-European countries will be invited for the study. Using an online survey approach, we will collect data on stranger anxiety, separation anxiety symptoms, general psychopathology, parenting style, parent anxiety and depression as well as personal and perceived cultural norms about development of autonomy in children. We expect a strong influence of cultural norms (for both, personally accepted norms but also for the general cultural norms) about the development of autonomy on the observation of separation anxiety symptoms.

Project 10-SESC: Mindshaping and Affective Perspective Taking

Project Leader: Julia Wolf

Co-Leader: Achim Stephan

Philosophical project: Research on social cognition has mainly focused on mindreading; the ability to attribute mental states to others in order to predict or explain their behaviour. However, there is an increasing awareness that social cognition consists not only in mindreading, but also in mindshaping. That is to say that we not only infer the mental states of others, but shape them both intentionally and non-intentionally (McGeer, 2007; Spaulding, 2018). Research on mindreading and mindshaping has so far mainly focused on cognitive states such as beliefs and desires, leaving largely unexplored the role that affective processes and affective states play for social cognition. While some recent work has been done on affective processes in mindshaping, this has not been integrated into a cohesive picture of social cognition. The aim of this project is to close this gap by providing an empirically informed theoretical framework for evaluating the role of affective states in social cognition. A main research question is whether there is a role for affective perspective taking beyond cognitive perspective taking, and if so the extent to which shared affectivity and affective perspective taking underlie mindshaping. The project therefore aims to provide a framework for social cognition which takes into account embodied affective processes and the role of affective scaffolding. 

Part V: Situated Linguistic Understanding / Communication

Project 11-LING: Language as a Means of Embodied Sense-Making

Project Leader: Nikola Kompa

Philosophical project: Language scaffolds impressive cognitive achievements. It has been shown to augment memory and cognitive control, and to aid categorization, abstract thought and analogical reasoning. But it not only supports various cognitive functions. It also seems to be a preferred means of making sense of our experience and the world around us. Yet sense-making is a multimodal, deeply embodied (and enacted) process as understanding is often (accompanied by) an affective reaction, i.e. a feeling of coherence or significance, or at least this will be a first working hypothesis of the project. A second working hypothesis will be that the role of language in embodied sense-making is most pronounced when we turn to metaphor. However, different notions of metaphor are on offer. Some think of metaphor as a linguistic surface phenomenon with ornamental value at best. Others think of it as a conceptual mapping between different domains. Still others conceive of metaphor as a form of Gestalt perception. Moreover, making sense may a be local, context-sensitive endeavour, or a more existential project. A first step in the project will thus be to carefully work out a notion of metaphor that allows us to acknowledge its sense-making potential. In a second step, a notion of embodied sense-making will be (further) developed. Whether this will result in an abilities-based approach or a list of criteria for when understanding has been achieved (and sense be made), or a description of the underlying socio-cognitive mechanism is presently left open. We will approach this question by looking at cases in which sense-making fails, e.g. due to hermeneutic injustice, or as a result of certain psychopathological conditions. In a third step, the theoretical ideas developed thus far will be put to test. For example, on the account just sketched, one would expect metaphor to serve therapeutic functions. One would also expect it to serve epistemic functions, especially in scientific inquiry. And one would expect it to prevail in cases in which one struggles the most to make sense of one’s own (or others’) experience. 

Project 12-LING: Situated Interpretation: Focus Manipulation and the Meaning of Generic Statements

Project Leader: Markus Werning

Philosophical and linguistic project combined with EEG-studies: Generics describe generalizations that allow for exceptions (Mari, Beyssade & Del Prete 2012; Nickel 2016). Bare plural generics have the surface form “As are B” and are structurally ambiguous between a canonical interpretation, which expresses the direct prevalence As mostly are B, and a diagnostic interpretation, where an inverse prevalence is expresses: “Mosquitoes carry malaria” only means Malaria-carriers mostly are mosquitos (Leslie 2007). The truth-conditions of generics can be varied by putting focus either on the comment B (canonical interpretation) or on the topic A (diagnostic interpretation, Krifka et al. 1995). Since focus is often used covertly, it easily leads to fallacies and may be used to mislead people, esp. in discriminatory discourse (Leslie & Lerner 2016; Reisigl & Wodak 2001). Xenophobes might, e.g., cite evidence for a diagnostic reading of “***s are drug dealers” (“***” denoting a particular ethnic group, focus underlined) – i.e., that drug dealers mostly are *** – but instead insinuating the canonical and racist interpretation that ***s are mostly drug dealers. We will model generics and focus effects in a Bayesian Pragmatic framework (Frank & Goodman 2012; Werning & Cosentino 2017). The model will be validated by behavioral and EEG experiments using a predictive completion task (Cosentino et al. 2017) in combination with a picture-verification paradigm (Spychalska et al. 2016, 2019). Varying visually presented frequency distributions and different focus conditions will be realized by pitch accents, contexts or questions under discussion. Depending on speakers’ interpretations, their prediction of target words can be measured using a correlation between the N400 component and the predictive probability of the target word (Kuperberg & Jaeger 2016).