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Center for Cognition, Learning and Memory



Balancing Self and Body: Sensory, Motor, and Cognitive Mechanisms

Project manager: Fred Mast

Duration: 1.9.2009-28.2.2013

This ambitious project, BALANCING SELF AND BODY, involves Cognitive Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuro-Otology and investigates the body-related processes underlying the self. Concepts like the „Self“ and „Identity“ are key to understand human individuality and subjectivity. These concepts have been analyzed by philosophers for time immemorial, but only more recent studies - within the cognitive science and neuroscience community - began to study these concepts experimentally. Here we investigate how sensory, motor and cognitive mechanisms determine the „Bodily Self“. Particular emphasis is given to the balance system, which relies on a constantly updated body representation, but also visual, tactile, and motor contributions to the bodily self. Ever since the great American philosopher and psychologist William James categorized different aspects of the self at the end of the 19th century these aspects have been continuously refined and expanded, including many different sensory, emotional or cognitive layers. This has led to an excess of definitions, in the absence of a widely accepted model of the self that is based on empirical neurobiological data. More recent neurobiological theories converge on the relevance of the bodily self, i.e., the processing of low-level multisensory body-related information, as one promising approach for the development of a comprehensive neurobiological model of the self. Although, several sensory systems have been studied in great detail a crucial system for the bodily self has been neglected. BALANCING SELF AND BODY plans to remedy this neglect and we propose to merge techniques and expertise from cognitive science, neuroimaging, vestibular physiology, medicine, and virtual reality by joining forces and research expertise of three main partners in Switzerland. We will use state-of-the art experimental techniques from cognitive psychology (Bern) and cognitive neuroscience (Lausanne) and apply these strategies to healthy subjects and patients with selected vestibular disorders through the implication of a clinical research group (Geneva). Thus, we plan to discover basic cognitive and neuroscientific principles of the bodily self as well as to improve standard diagnostic procedures and vestibular rehabilitation techniques. Over two million patients per year consult their physicians in the US because of balance problems (this would correspond to more than 50'000 patients in Switzerland). Even though we pursue a basic research approach this underlines strikingly the huge potential for applied clinical improvements. Moreover, we attempt to integrate our findings in both theoretical and computer models (with the help of our international partner in Boston), which will include knowledge from cognitive science and neuroscience to better understand commonalities between different empirical phenomena and the information processing structure that underlies our results. The reviewed data show compellingly that vestibular information is nested and intertwined with cognitive processes related to the bodily self. We suggest that a more complete understanding of the mechanisms of the bodily self will only be possible when the integration of vestibular with visual, somatosensory, and motor signals, their neural basis, and their impact on conscious experience will be investigated empirically as proposed here. The self has long been long considered as a concept that is too vague and can hence not be studied experimentally. The Blanke Lab has pioneered the experimental study of apparently „soft” or underconstrained internal states such as impressions or thoughts of where the self is localized? Where is the body? In which direction am I moving? We will continue dynamically along these lines and plan to highlight the role of sensory information in general and one sensory organ in particular (vestibular system, which is not yet sufficiently studied among cognitive scientists) extending the seminal work of the Mast Lab over the last several years on how the vestibular system is involved in cognitive processing. This will be extended by neuroimaging work revealing the neural machinery of the bodily self during vestibular-multisensory interactions and importantly by a highly innovative approach into the multisensory and cognitive mechanisms in neuro-otology. A better understanding of how the vestibular system may influence the bodily self and other related aspects may help clinicians (who sometimes are disappointed and frustrated when interviewing these patients) to reinforce the patient – doctor relationship. Such solid work in patients with uni- or bilateral loss of vestibular function will be joined with a world-wide unique initiative to develop vestibular implants and surgical procedures to the end organ. All the involved disciplines will benefit from the contributions of our international partner Daniel Merfeld (Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Harvard Medical School) who has championed the development of computer models of human spatial orientation that utilize internal models as the primary computational element and has also been directly involved in the development of a vestibular implant. All prospective researchers involved in this project will find themselves in a thriving and stimulating scientific environment equipped with unique laboratory set-ups. The multi-method approach we pursue for each project will provide a strong training component for all personnel involved in this project. At the same time, the research aims focus on core questions about the nature of the self, which are central to several related disciplines such as neurology, psychiatry, education science, sports science, philosophy, robotics, neuroengineering and basic neuroscience. The project BALANCING SELF AND BODY is ambitious and novel and applies a large variety of different methods such as psychophysical tasks combined with high-end laboratory tools for behavioral research such as motion platforms, virtual reality devices and computerized task batteries. Additionally, electrical neuroimaging will be used to tap into the underlying brain areas associated with the spatial and temporal aspects of the bodily self. A comparable project does - to the best of our knowledge - not exist anywhere else. After the successful decade of the brain 1990s with its focus on neuroscience and neuroimaging, recent consortia in the US are moving towards a new scientific research horizon: the decade of the mind (Albus et al., 2007). This truly transdisciplinary project plans to unite such disparate fields as cognitive science, medicine, neuroscience, psychology, mathematics, engineering, and computer science with a central role of the cognitive neurosciences. The expertise that we unite and this BALANCING SELF AND BODY proposal fits very well in this emerging and powerful research field. Concerning the initiative for the decade of the Mind it was highlighted that “research should be encouraged on aspects of the mind believed to be uniquely human, such as the notion of self, rational thought processes, theory of mind, language, and higher order consciousness.” (Albus et al., Science 2007). These topics as well as how they relate to bodily processing in the human brain is the main focus of this SINERGIA proposal. By linking our research expertise on vestibular and bodily aspects of self processing - that is to the best of our knowledge not found in Europe or in the US in a single Laboratory or research consortium – we are confident that the results from this research proposal will make outstanding contributions to the study of bodily self-consciousness in health and disease.

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