Sebastiaan Mathôt, researcher at experimental psychology, has received an NWO VIDI grant for his research proposal 'Turning the senses: How cognition shapes sensation at the gate'. The project is about the complex collaboration between the brain and the senses. Mathôt is one of the five RUG researchers to receive the prestigious VIDI grant. He will receive 800,000 to further investigate this topic.
Brains influence senses
In his research proposal, Sebastiaan opposes the classic idea that the senses are passive receptors that only transmit sensory information to the brain. According to Sebastiaan, the brain is not only a recipient of our observations, but also influences them. Sebastiaan: “Our brain controls our senses based on our state of mind and our current situation. This implies that cognitive processes shape our perceptions from the very first moment; the moment that sensory information reaches the senses. This is what I call 'sensory tuning' in my proposal”.
Sebastiaan uses pupil size as an example. “Your pupils can take different sizes. Based on your situation and state of mind, your brain instructs the eye muscles to bring the pupils to an optimal size. For example, if you are reading a book, your pupils will become small so that you can see the letters sharply, similarly to the lens of a camera. But if you are scared and not feeling at ease, your brain will make your pupils large so that you are better able to see what is happening around you”. According to Sebastiaan, our brains optimize our senses based on what is needed at a specific moment.
In the coming years, Sebastiaan will work with two PhD students and a postdoc to further investigate these processes. The team will not only investigate visual perceptions, but will look at auditory perceptions as well. They expect to observe similar processes. Sebastiaan: “There are small muscles in your middle ear. When these are tightened sounds with a low frequency can be filtered. It is very likely that this will happen if you are in a situation where low frequencies are not useful, for example when you expect to hear a high tone ”.
Sebastiaan is looking forward to working together with a larger team and he hopes that by the end of the project they will have gained more insight in the complex collaboration between the brain and the senses.
In the long term, the research of Mathôt's group may contribute to improving sensory prostheses used in people whose senses no longer work properly. Sebastiaan: “It is possible that these prostheses can be adjusted in such a way that they can filter better. It would be great if the filtering could happen automatically based on your situation or state of mind. But there is still a long way to go before we will be able to do that.”
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