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New DFG Research Unit

Tracing perception-cognition-action loops

München, 07/09/2015

A new interdisciplinary, DFG-funded Research Unit hosted by the Chair of General and Experimental Psychology at LMU will explore the complex neurocognitive links that connect perceptions with purposive actions.

Source: Dirk Vonten / Fotolia.com

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) has announced that it will fund a new Research Unit devoted to Active Perception at LMU. The Unit’s mission is based on the recognition that “perception is not a matter of passive absorption, it involves an active search for information relevant to the task in hand,” as Professor Hermann J. Müller puts it. Müller holds the Chair of General and Experimental Psychology at LMU and will serve as Spokesperson for the new group. “Perception involves continuous interaction and exchange with the world around us. Everything we see, hear, or feel not only has an influence on our current actions; rather, its workings are themselves controlled by what these actions are intended to achieve. In this view, perception cannot be understood simply as an ongoing flow of passive sensory impressions. Perception is in fact an eminently active process, including experience-based, i.e. memory-dependent prediction of the effects of an intended action, together with any necessary situation-dependent adjustments of the action parameters themselves and/or the updating of the relevant informational basis stored in memory.“

The incessant interaction between perception, action, and environment that characterizes our waking lives can be exemplified in virtually everything we do. Take the case of a hungry hiker on an autumn day, who happens to pass through an area with fruit trees and decides to pick some apples for lunch. With this objective in mind, she will begin to focus her attention on the apple trees. Having located a suitable tree bearing ripe fruit, she must then decide which one to pick first. Perception’s next task is to deliver all the parameters relevant to the movement required to grasp and successfully detach the selected fruit from the chosen bough. This involves things like determining how far the arm must be extended to reach the apple, how the palm of the hand and the fingers must be positioned to grasp it, and whether the shortest trajectory must be modified to avoid an intervening twig. Each of these operations involves the so-called perception-cognition-action loop. “And our aim is to understand the neural and cognitive bases of processes such as these,” says Müller.

Funding for the new interdisciplinary Unit has been approved for the coming three years in the first instance. During this period, the participating researchers will focus on the perception-cognition-action loop. In eleven subprojects, specialists from various disciplines will investigate the diverse mechanisms that contribute to the process of active perception, using a variety of methodological approaches based on psychological, neuroscientific, and mathematical perspectives.

Implications for diagnostics – and robotics

One particular area of interest will draw on data from developmental psychology to study how mechanisms of active perception evolve and mature during childhood. “But we are also interested in understanding how normal and pathological aspects of the aging process modify the operations involved in active perception,” Müller says. To probe the role of memory in the modulation of active perception, state-of-the-art neurocognitive methods will be employed. These include electroencephalography, which measures brain-electrical activity using scalp electrodes, and functional magnetic resonance tomography, which permits active neural networks during task performance to be identified, while mathematical modeling methods will be applied to gain insight into the neural dynamics.

“Our principal goal is to integrate lines of inquiry that have so far been pursued in isolation from one another into a unified theoretical framework,” Müller says. “One other priority is to translate our research findings into improved neurological and psychiatric diagnostics, and explore their application to more technical fields, such as social robotics.”