Consciousness & Metacognition Lab
we are a group of cognitive neuroscientists trying to understand why there's something it is like to be the owner of an awake human brain - i.e. why we have subjective experiences, why we consciously feel anything at all. we are primarily based at UCLA, although we also have a second base in Hong Kong, as well as collaborations elsewhere, including Japan (with Mitsuo Kawato @ ATR) and London (Steve Fleming @ Wellcome Centre for Neuroimaging).
we do experiments in humans using various kinds of brain imaging and stimulation techniques. we also do a fair bit of quantitative analysis of perception and behavior (i.e. psychophysics), and dabble a bit in philosophy now and then too. we focus on visual awareness - why it feels like something to consciously see; why some perceptual processes in the brain are conscious while others aren't. but we also study spatial attention, neurofeedback, fear, confidence, among other things. below you'll find more details.
our lab is so called because we believe that perceptual awareness and metacognition are intimately linked. a review of the empirical evidence for this connection is here.
when we say we study conscious perception empirically, many will think of binocular rivalry or masking. but we are worried that their conceptual relevance is often over-emphasized or misunderstood (an older critical essay is here). instead we think we should focus on blindsight and its conceptual variants. we can study this in patients as well as in average undergrads too (to some limited extent).
becoz of the empirical link between metacognition and consciousness, we also think that figuring out the mechanisms for how one rates confidence based on introspection is useful for understanding consciousness. in collaborations with other labs we have analyzed data from intracranial electrosphyiology (in surgical epileptic patients) and multiunit neuronal recording for this purpose. we also use psychophysics to study confidence and awareness, e.g. this and this.
to understand these mechanisms better in formal terms, we have also done some computational modeling work using signal detection theory (e.g. this and this), & have developed a toolbox and a metric for quantifying metacognition.
anatomically, we think the prefrontal cortex likely contains some of the key relevant mechanisms. there are those who disagree, but we think they are misguided (sorry!).
like many others, we are also interested in the connections between attention and conscious perception. instead of engaging in the debate of whether attention is necessary for consciousnes perception, we are interested in the potentially negative relationship between the two. i.e. in the unattended periphery, we don't represent things so well. and yet, there's a sense that we subjectively experience a relatively rich level of vivid details - inflated beyond what is supported by the content of the relevant neural representations. we have provided some preliminary evidence for this 'inflation' account (such as this and this), and continue to work on this phenomenon.
we have also done some work on understanding the functions of consciousness. like many others we have shown that unconscious processing can be surprisingly powerful. but we are also somewhat skeptical about what these results really mean. a new approach may be needed to address this in the future.
conceptually, although some people thought we treat metacognition and consciousness as the same thing, that is not the case - as we have tried several times to explain in print. we are still trying to figure out the exact connection between the two. in the empirical review mentioned above, we discussed this link in the context of a Kantian philosophical theory known as the higher-order view of consciousnesss. if you are interested in our latest thoughts on this link between consciousness and metacognition, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org for a draft of a philosophy paper he's working on.
although we are definitely into theories and philosophy, we are not such big fans of speculative, abstract theories on consciousness that aren't rigorously tested with experiments. we have expressed some of these views here.
for the field to gain better recognition within academia (rather than in popular media, which we are doing perhaps 'too' well already....), we reckon one useful way forward may be to develop clinical applications. while we think studies of patients in coma are interesting & important, we have not yet done that sort of work because we feel it is difficult to experimentally control things well there. instead, we have been using a relatively novel form of fMRI neurofeedback, to manipulate specific decoded neural representations (such as subjective confidence). with this technique, known as decoded neurofeedback (DecNef), we have been trying to develop a novel treatment method for phobia (see this for an update of how far we've gotten since last year).
for future directions.... our latest new interests include depression & schizophrenia. as a side project of sort, in collaboration with computational sociologist Kayuet Liu we are also trying to develop a novel (psychological) perspective for understanding the autoimmunue system (extending from our work on unconscious fear), and to study how diseases like chronic infllammation & cancer may actually spread through social networks (like fear does).
so, the above is a 'brief' overview of what we do. for a full list of publications, you can check out this (a CV containing a list of all published work), or this google scholar profile (which includes bioRvix preprints too). feel free to email us (email@example.com) if you are stuck behind a paywall.
Hakwan Lau is the oldest fixture in the lab. he was born and raised in Hong Kong, went to England for grad school, and was an associate professor at Columbia University in New York before he moved to UCLA where he's now tenured. during 2017-2020 he is based primarily at the University of Hong Kong. he blogs here about his book project and other stuff. this is his CV.
Brian Odegaard did his PhD using computational models (of Bayesian Causal Inference) & psychophysics, to understand multisensory integration and attention. he is currently working on why we think we see things in the unattended periphery even though we don't really represent them very well, and how the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions in the decision-making circuitry may contribue to this phenomenon.
Vincent Taschereau-Dumouchel is the 'clinical guy' in the lab; he's the only 'doctor' in the lab who actually knows how to treat patients. he uses decoded fMRI neuro-reinforcement to make people less afraid of stuff - all happening without the subjects' awareness of the purpose of the procedure (so that all is double-blind placebo-controlled too).
JD Knotts is a 4th year graduate student, who has done some decoded fMRI neurofeedback, and psychophysics work on masking and confidence.
Eugene Ruby is a 3rd year graduate student with a strong background in schizophrenia research. He is interested in applying this past work to examining whether neurocognitive deficits in metacognition and conscious awareness contribute to the pathogenesis of schizophrenia.
Cody Cushing is a 1st year grad student with a strong background in MEG analysis.
Martin Safrin is a 4th year MD/PhD student just starting his doctoral research in the lab.
Leila Solouki is a senior year undergraduate student doing a research project in the lab.
Andrew Eastwick (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a part-time administrative specialist in the lab.
(one of the persons above is a friendly intruder who has never exactly worked with us... i let you figure out who that may be :-)
there is also a smaller team in Hong Kong:
Seong Hah Cho is a first year PhD student who has a Master's degree in neurobiology from UCLA. he analysis multiunit neuronal recording data.
Cathie So is a first year PhD student with a background in physics and quantum computing. she is building AI algorithms, and fMRI analytic methods.
Vincent Xiao is an undergrad intern who does psychophysics experiments.
and there are those who aren't in the lab as such but work quite closely with us:
Jorge Morales is a final year philosophy graduate student at Columbia. he did some psychophysics and fMRI experiments with us.
Aurelio Cortese is a postdoctoral researcher based at ATR in Mitsuo Kawato's group. he's been collaborating with us since he was a grad student.
Mouslim Cherkaoui is a first year grad student, primarily based in Jesse Rissman's lab.
Piercesare Grimaldi is an MD, interested in EEG work and schizophrenia. he also conducts multiunit neuronal recordings.
and we also have some pretty remarkable alumni:
Megan Peters was a postdoc in the lab and is now faculty at UC Riverside Bioengineering.
Dobromir Rahnev was a graduate student in the lab when we were at Columbia. he went on to do a postdoc at Mark D'Esposito's lab at UC Berkeley, and is now a faculty member at GeorgiaTech
Guillermo Solovey was a postdoc in the lab and is now a faculty member back in his native Buenos Airies
Brian Maniscalco was a student in the the lab when we were at Columbia. he is now finishing his postdoc with Biyu He at NYU and is rejoining the family (to work with Megan at UC Riverside)
we do not have a funded opening for a research position right now, but if you are finishing your phD and are interested in applying for fellowships to work in the lab, please contact email@example.com directly.
at this moment we do not have an opening for interns.
for grad applicants: this is a somewhat unusual couple of years (2017-20) because Hakwan will be primarily based in Hong Kong (with regular visits back to LA). but we will consider exceptional applicants who have already done/published work in the area, and are interested in working with us because of specific projects