Research projects

Neurocognition of conscious and non-conscious vision (Head: Guido Hesselmann)

Our present research focus is on the transitions between conscious and non-conscious vision. Using psychophysics, motion tracking, and fMRI, our aim is to better characterize the link between physical stimulation, perceptual awareness, and neural information processing in the ventral and dorsal visual pathways. To reduce stimulus visibility, we employ variants of interocular suppression. We are also interested in the question of the extent of non-conscious processing and whether there is a qualitative shift from non-conscious to conscious cognition. The overarching theme of our work is the constructive nature of visual perception. Currently, we explore to what degree the implicit beliefs about the physics of a rotating bistable stimulus (Lissajous figure) shape its perception.

Selected publications

Hesselmann G, Moors P
Definitely maybe: can unconscious processes perform the same functions as conscious processes?.
Front Psychol 2015; 6:584.
Ludwig K, Kathmann N, Sterzer P, Hesselmann G
Investigating category- and shape-selective neural processing in ventral and dorsal visual stream under interocular suppression.
Hum Brain Mapp 2015; 36(1):137-49.
Ludwig K, Sterzer P, Kathmann N, Franz VH*, Hesselmann G* (* equal contribution)
Learning to detect but not to grasp suppressed visual stimuli.
Neuropsychologia 2013; 51(13):2930-8.

Computational Psychiatry (Head: Katharina Schmack)

We investigate the computational mechanisms underlying psychiatric disorders.
One line of our research focuses on psychotic symptoms. Psychotic symptoms are typical for schizophrenia, and comprise delusions, which are beliefs that are unfounded in the external reality, and hallucinations, which are percepts in the absence of a causative stimulus. We think that psychotic symptoms might arise from an alteration of the brain’s basic learning and inferencing mechanisms. We test this hypothesis by the use of computational modelling together with fMRI, psychophysics and pharmacological challenges in individuals affected by schizophrenia and individuals prone to psychotic experiences.
Another line of our research is concerned with creating tools for clinically useful predictions from brain imaging data. Using the example of alcohol-use disorder, we develop and apply advanced multivariate classification and regression techniques. Thereby, we aim to identify disorder-specific patterns in brain imaging data that can help us to predict outcome and to individualize treatment in psychiatric disorders.

Further information

Selected publications

Schmack K*, Weilnhammer V*, Heinzle J, Stephan KE, Sterzer P (* equal contribution)
Learning What to See in a Changing World.
Front Hum Neurosci 2016; 10:263.
Schmack K, Burk J, Haynes JD, Sterzer P
Predicting Subjective Affective Salience from Cortical Responses to Invisible Object Stimuli.
Cereb Cortex 2015; [Epub ahead of print]
Schmack K, Gòmez-Carrillo de Castro A, Rothkirch M, Sekutowicz M, Rössler H, Haynes JD, Heinz A, Petrovic P, Sterzer P
Delusions and the role of beliefs in perceptual inference.
J Neurosci 2013; 33(34):13701-12.

The processing of motivational, emotional, and social visual information (Head: Marcus Rothkirch)

In this research project we study the processing of motivationally, emotionally, and socially relevant visual information. We pursue, for instance, the following questions: How is visual perception modulated by monetary rewards, or by emotional face expressions, or by eye contact with another person? In particular, we focus on the interaction of such information with visual attention: Under which conditions do motivational, emotional, and social stimuli attract attention and to what degree does this happen automatically? In this context, we also perform studies probing unconscious influences of such information, that is, when visual stimuli are entirely suppressed from awareness. To pursue these questions we employ psychophysical methods in combination with eye tracking, skin conductance measurements, and functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Selected publications

Rothkirch M*, Madipakkam AR*, Rehn E, Sterzer P (* equal contribution)
Making eye contact without awareness.
Cognition 2015; 143:108-14.
Rothkirch M, Schmack K, Deserno L, Darmohray D, Sterzer P
Attentional modulation of reward processing in the human brain.
Hum Brain Mapp 2014; 35(7):3036-51.
Rothkirch M, Stein T, Sekutowicz M, Sterzer P
A direct oculomotor correlate of unconscious visual processing.
Curr Biol 2012; 22(13):R514-5.