Georgetown Laboratory for Relational Cognition

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Our work is directed along multiple lines described below. This research is funded by grants from The National Science Foundation, The John Templeton Foundation, The American Legacy Foundation, Pymetrics, and Partners in Research at Georgetown University. You can read more about the lab here

Sparking Relational Creativity

No ability is more valued in the modern innovation-fueled economy than thinking creatively on demand, and the ability to consciously engage a heightened state of creative thinking (i.e., to try and succeed at thinking more creatively) is important for education and a rich mental life. While brain-based creativity research has focused on static individual differences in trait creativity, little is known about how changes in brain function support a state of heightened creative thinking when creativity is required. In addition, it is largely unknown whether a person can consciously engage and disengage a heightened creative state dynamically across short durations of time. This is particularly surprising because mechanisms that make creativity dynamic within an individual are likely to be critical for enabling current efforts in science, education, and industry to improve creative thinking and augment creative output.  

Learning Concepts and Reasoning Strategies

Fostering true conceptual understanding and effective reasoning strategies in the minds of students, not just the right answers on the test, is a goal of teachers in every science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classroom. Recent advances in tools used to analyze images of the human brain allow detection of complexly-patterned changes in the brains of students that signify learning of STEM concepts and STEM-relevant relational reasoning strategies that. This advance may open a window onto biomarkers of precisely the type of learning that is the goal of educators. Critically, this new approach has not yet been applied to longitudinal learning in a real-world classroom, i.e., how the brain changes over time during schooling and how those brain changes relate to changes in knowledge and thinking skills. If it is possible to observe brain changes that correspond to classroom-based strengthening of concepts and thinking strategies, then – in conjunction with traditional assessment methods – this method has transformative potential to help identify the most effective real-world educational practices, and could profoundly influence the future use of brain imaging in education and education research.  

Abstract Relational Reasoning

Understanding something new by relating it to something familiar, e.g., seeing that a statistical prediction interval is abstractly similar to a fishing net, is fundamental to how humans think, from expert scientific reasoning to classroom learning. We are investigating the cognitive and neural bases of abstract relational reasoning, with a particular focus on how people understand abstract similarities between things that seem different on the surface. The most valuable similarities are the ones that reveal hidden connections between things that seem different (e.g., the connection between the structure of the atom and the structure of the solar system). These abstract, hidden similarities have been recognized by effective thinkers, from Kepler to Einstein to Steve Jobs, as the fundamental basis for understanding and teaching complex, novel concepts. Our research has initiated the development of a new area of “semantic distance” research in relational reasoning. Semantic distance research addresses the ways in which cognitive and neural processes of relational reasoning change as surface-level differences increase (i.e. as the connections become more and more abstract).

The Cognition of Belief

How are the beliefs we hold about the world, including both religious and nonreligious beliefs, determined by neurocognitive processes ranging from bottom-up learning of relatedness in patterns to relational schema representations of people and even of gods? We are conducting studies of these underlying mechanisms belief through both behavioral and neuroimaging methods. This work engages commonalities and differences among diverse sets of believers, e.g., samples in the U.S. and Afghanistan, and samples who vary in their levels of belief and disbelief. 

Does the way a person sees the world (really sees – including unconscious, bottom-up processing of visual information in subcortical structures) shape their religious and spiritual intuitions? In particular, do innate individual differences in unconscious processing of relations between elements of visual information shape intuitions that events in the world are related to each other and attributable to supernatural influence (i.e., an interventionist god)? One ongoing project is exploring these questions, using complex visuospatial stimuli in associations with measures of belief and of the development of belief from childhood to adulthood. This project includes data collection at a research site in Afghanistan as well as collection of both live and online data in the U.S. We are thus able to test the extent to which different sets of belief in different (and frequently opponent) sets of believers may actually be based on shared cognitive mechanisms.

How much is the thought of God (as manifested in the brain) like a thought of something objectively real or something objectively not real? How similar or different are God representations, and especially relational schemas about how God relates to people, in the brains of believers and nonbelievers? To address these questions, we are conducting a project that leverages new advances in machine learning of neuroimaging data and the technique of representational similarity analysis (RSA). RSA differs from traditional brain imaging in that it focuses on mosaic features of neural representation, seeking information in patterned relationships between tens of thousands of “voxels.” Critically, RSA defines a concept representation not by its mosaic alone, but also by its relationship – or distance – to other mosaics representing other concepts. RSA has yielded new insights in many areas of cognition, but has not previously been applied to religious concepts. Using RSA to analyze functional magnetic resonance imaging data, we will investigate how God is represented in the brain relative to other entities that are real or not real (e.g. Father, Superman). We are exploring whether and how God representations are similar and/or different in the brains of believers and unbelievers. Pairing RSA with analysis of psychological dimensional structure, we are further seeking to identify why some entities are represented similarly or differently (i.e. what shared psychological dimensions explain similar representation and how these dimensions are manifested in neural patterns)

Cognitive Neurogenetics of Reasoning-Related Cognitive Function

As a component of investigating the biological bases of reasoning our research seeks to identify pathways of effect through which genetic variations influence reasoning-related cognitive functions (Fossella et al., 2006; Green, Munafo, et al., 2008; Green & Dunbar, 2012; Green, Kraemer, et al., 2013; Green et al., 2014). While “cognitive neurogenetic” research of this kind shows strong potential, this emerging field has not yet outgrown serious theoretical and interpretive hazards. One focus of our research is to identify sources of these hazards. In critical analyses of recent research, we have outlined methodological considerations for the “intermediate phenotype approach,” and emphasized statistical and paradigmatic strategies to ensure that results can be meaningfully interpreted (Green, Munafo et al., 2008; Green & Dunbar, 2012). The long-term goal of this work, in combination with our primary research lines described above, is to develop a stronger vertical integration of data on human reasoning at cognitive, neural, and genetic levels. Toward this goal, we have developed and tested gene-brain-cognition effect pathways that integrate data at the genetic, neural, and behavioral levels within a single directional model. We have used this approach to show that activity in four frontal brain regions mediates effects of a dopamine system-related gene on executive attention and IQ (Green, Kraemer et al., 2013). In collaboration with Dr. G. William Rebeck in the Department of Neuroscience at Georgetown, we have conducted a series of studies investigating the effects of genetic Alzheimer’s risk factors on brain structures and functions that support reasoning and executive function. This work has further demonstrated the efficacy of gene-brain-cognition modeling, and has generally supported an antagonistic pleiotropy account of Alzheimer’s genetic risk whereby genetic variants that confer risk late in life actually confer neurocognitive advantages in young people (Green et al., 2014; DiBattista et al., 2014; Stevens et al., 2014).