(Mental) simulation is ubiquitous and seems to underlie nearly every project that I pursue, yet definitions of what simulation means vary from researcher to researcher and even more so from research domain to research domain. Furthermore, a consensus on the underlying mechanisms of mental simulation still evade us. I am interested in understanding what simulation as a process shares across domains such as music listening, language processing, action observation, and sensorimotor prediction. Check back soon for a link to a working group I am organizing with my colleagues for Fall 2018 that focuses on understanding descriptions, mechanisms, and applications of mental simulation.
Grounded language learning
We know that language is highly embodied and situated, as much work shows that neural regions corresponding to actual perception/motor acts are also active while processing language about these perceptions and motor acts. I am very interested in the process by which language and concepts become embodied during acquisition. I have multiple experiments looking at how the sensorimotor interactions and affordances that are available at the time of language acquisition can influence how words/concepts are grounded in actions and in corresponding neural areas responsible for actions.
Related and highly overlapping with my interest in understanding simulation, I am interested in how sensorimotor prediction unfolds, particularly in motor regions of the brain. Many experiments show that motor regions are active during human action perception, as well as sensory prediction of spatiotemporal information like rising and falling pitch, etc. I’ve designed VR/TMS experiments aiming to discover how motor areas of the brain become predictive in new sensorimotor tasks, and what the timeline of this process is.
Contextual recruitment of overlapping neural populations for different cognitive tasks
Traditional brain mapping methods at their core attempt to pair a task label with a specific brain region to say that area X does Y. I believe that, consistent with neural reuse theory, brain regions are exapted for many tasks that can be carried out through similar kinds of computations. For instance, I believe that motor areas may employ simulation in some contexts, while taking on a sensorimotor prediction role in others. Thus, we can think of brain areas in terms of what computations the neuronal populations they can afford, instead of what cognitive domain they are specialized for.
Interactions between motor learning and language learning
While a lot of work in the linguistic domain looks at embodied language, most theories of motor control don’t account for effects of language on motor tasks. Another VR task developed by myself and a few collaborators looks at motor learning in a 3-dimensional virtual world and examines the effect that linguistic labels has on motor learning. Other work I’ve been involved in has shown particularly interesting relationships between motor learning improvement and improvement in learning a linguistic label.
Ecologically-improved VR experiments
A touchstone of my research platform is a motivation to make laboratory tasks engaging for participants and more ecologically valid than standard paradigms. Thus, my last few projects have been created in virtual reality, which enables realistic movements and interactions with content in the experiment. I plan to continue creating innovative experiments in virtual reality and push this paradigm forward.