See Master thesis

Cognitive Psychology

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MCP1 - The role of visual attention when executing a motor sequencing task

Supervisor: prof.dr. Willem Verwey


An important issue is how people develop motor automaticity. This is the capacity to execute a series of successive movements while little attention is needed for executing them. It is as if the limbs know what to do. Such motor skills can be investigated in the laboratory with a sequential key pressing task. In the proposed study, participants will develop motor automaticity by practicing two fixed 6-element key pressing sequences in response to stimuli that either attract, or do not attract, visual attention. After practice they will perform in a phase that tests whether the motor skill relies more on the visual stimuli when these attracted attention during practice than when attention was not attracted. In the proposed thesis project, this hypothesis will be tested in a laboratory experiment in the BMS lab.


Abrahamse, E. L., Ruitenberg, M. F. L., De Kleine, E., & Verwey, W. B. (2013). Control of automated behaviour: Insights from the Discrete Sequence Production task. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7(82), 1-16.

Van der Lubbe, R. H. J., & Abrahamse, E. L. (2011). The premotor theory of attention and the Simon effect. Acta Psychologica, 136(2), 259-264.

Verwey, W. B. (in press). Isoluminant stimuli in a familiar discrete keying sequence task can be ignored. Psychological Research.

Verwey, W. B., Wright, D. L., & van der Lubbe, R. H. J. (in revision). The Simon effect in a discrete keying task: Key-specific stimuli cannot be ignored due to attentional capture. Acta Psychologica.

MCP2 - The distribution of cognitive resources over time when performing in repetitive tasks

Supervisors: prof.dr. Willem Verwey,  dr. Stefan Arnau (IfADo)


Human performance is not stable over time. Performance might increase when a person gains proficiency and is able to cope with task demands more easily. In our daily lives, however, we usually already know the tasks we perform, especially those we are obligated to accomplish. These tasks also tend to be repetitive, boring and no fun at all. This is where we usually observe a decline of performance over time, a phenomenon being referred to as mental fatigue. Mental fatigue describes a decrease in motivation triggered by an unconsciously negative evaluation of the task (Arnau et al., 2017; Wascher et al., 2016). It has been observed that the decline in performance associated with mental fatigue is not necessarily a steady process. In particular, performance might increase again towards the end of a task if the proximity of the end is known to a person. In order to investigate this final spurt phenomenon in detail, we set up an EEG experiment in which the participants perform in a repetitive and rather boring cognitive task. During some experimental blocks, feedback on the progress of the experiment is given to the participants, which is not the case in other blocks. Behavioral data as well as electrophysiological parameters of task engagement will be analyzed in order to investigate the distribution of cognitive resources over time. The experiment will be carried out at the IfADo in Dortmund, Germany, and will be supervised by Dr. Stefan Arnau.

Arnau, S., Möckel, T., Rinkenauer, G., & Wascher, E. (2017). The interconnection of mental fatigue and aging: An EEG study. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 117. 

Wascher, E., Heppner, H., Kobald, S. O., Arnau, S., Getzmann, S., & Möckel, T. (2016). Age-sensitive effects of enduring work with alternating cognitive and physical load. A study applying mobile EEG in a real-life working scenario. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9(JAN2016).

MCP3 - Effects of cardiac afferent activity on automatic vs. controlled reactions and their electrophysiological correlates

Supervisors: prof.dr. Willem Verwey, dr. Mauro Larra (IfADo)


When we are confronted with a threatening or stressful situation our body quickly reacts. Stress hormones as adrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood stream, blood pressure rises and our heart starts pounding. These peripheral stress reactions are fed back to the brain by various mechanisms, changing the way we process information and react to our environment. In our current research, we are investigating the mechanisms and effects of such stress induced alterations on brain function and behavior. The master-project will focus on a specific mechanism, the activation of mechanoreceptors in the vessel walls (baroreceptors) during increased cardiovascular arousal. To this end, we will conduct an EEG experiment in which automatic reactions to brief stimuli varying in salience and modality (visual, auditory, tactile) need to be suppressed. Stimulus presentation will be synchronized with participants’ ECG to target natural variations in the activation of baroreceptors which fire when the heart beats but are silent in-between heart-beats. Along with behavioral performance, electrophysiological and cardiovascular parameters will be analyzed. Within this framework, it will also be possible to incorporate own ideas, if desired. The experiment will be carried out at the IfADo in Dortmund, Germany, and will be supervised by Dr. Mauro Larra.


Azevedo, R. T., Garfinkel, S. N., Critchley, H. D., & Tsakiris, M. (2017). Cardiac afferent activity modulates the expression of racial stereotypes. Nature communications, 8, 13854. doi:10.1038/ncomms13854 

Garfinkel, S. N., & Critchley, H. D. (2016). Threat and the Body: How the Heart Supports Fear Processing. Trends Cogn Sci, 20(1), 34-46. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.10.005

MCP4 - Internal and external spatial attentional examined with lateralized EEG power spectra

Supervisors: dr. Rob Van der Lubbe,  dr. Simone Borsci


Several authors argued that retrieval of an item from visual short term memory (internal spatial attention) and focusing attention on an externally presented item (external spatial attention) are similar. In a recent EEG study (Van der Lubbe et al., 2014) we presented four-stimulus arrays and observed increased power in the alpha and theta bands at ipsilateral sites above occipital cortex with precues and with postcues appearing 3,000 ms after array offset. These findings indeed support the idea of a common underlying mechanism. Nevertheless, this support may crucially depend on the time interval between the stimulus array and the postcue, and also on the specific strategy employed. In the planned research project we want to examine whether participants shift to a more abstract non-spatial type of representation in the case of longer time intervals. Thus, goal of the project is to determine the boundary conditions for overlapping mechanisms by systematically varying the array-postcue time interval.

MCP5 - Testing the Dynamic Attentional Workspace Account with a visual detection and discrimination task

Supervisor: dr. Rob Van der Lubbe


According to a recent proposal (Van der Lubbe, in preparation) carrying out actions on the basis of visual stimuli implies a coupling between occipital, parietal, and hand motor areas that differs depending on the required analysis of visual information. When the presence of a visual stimulus only has to be detected, the coupling between occipital, parietal and motor areas may be less than when a visual stimulus needs to be identified before a required action can be carried out. By performing EEG coherence analyses, it may be tested whether the coupling between areas indeed differs between these conditions just when preparing to carry out an action and when actually executing the action. The planned experiment resembles an experiment performed by Van der Lubbe et al. (2006) and also relates to an approach of Wang et al. (2016). The experiment additionally relates to a grant that was awarded by the National Research Council in Poland.

MCP6 - What causes the “sharp end” effect in recall of disaster reports?

Supervisor: prof.dr. Jan Maarten Schraagen



Safety science distinguishes between ‘sharp end’ and ‘blunt end’ causes of accidents. The former are the most proximal causes, both in time and in place, to the actual incident, for instance an airline pilot being blamed for having ‘inadequate situation awareness’ or a surgeon for ignoring the input of a nurse or making a medication error. The latter are the more distal causes, further removed from the accident in time and place, for instance, the safety culture of an organization, managerial pressure emphasizing production over safety, or government regulations stimulating innovation to the neglect of safety.

It has often been stated that the sharp end bears most of the blame, and that people, when talking about accidents frequently remember sharp end causes rather than blunt end causes (e.g., Besnard & Hollnagel, 2014). In the past, this might have been due to biases by accident investigation boards towards reporting sharp end causes, but nowadays, models of accident causation have become more sophisticated and accident investigation boards report on both sharp and blunt end causes. 

Previous research (Moning, 2014) has demonstrated a memory effect under controlled laboratory conditions in the recall of disaster-related information. With articles containing both sharp end and blunt end information on two disasters (Tenerife and Challenger), participants recalled significantly more sharp end information than blunt end information. This was regardless of whether a ‘story grammar’ was present or not, in other words whether the article was structured according to a standard sequence (setting-theme-plot-resolution). Therefore, the presence of a story grammar cannot explain the “sharp end” effect in recall of disaster-related information.

Therefore, further research is needed on the causes of the “sharp end” effect. One explanation might be that sharp end causes are more concrete and therefore require less effort to remember than blunt end causes. People can more easily picture a pilot or a surgeon doing something wrong than an organization or a government. One way to investigate this would be to reverse the concreteness of sharp end and blunt end factors in a story. Another explanation might be that people can more easily visualize a proximal cause than a distal cause, precisely because a proximal cause is closer in time and space. This could be investigated by generalizing accident reporting to other causes that are either more distant or more proximal and see whether the same results are obtained for those causes.

Your assignment

You will carry out one or two experiments investigating possible causes of the “sharp end” effect. You can build upon previous research carried out by Moning (2014). You will need to develop materials, manipulate their complexity, concreteness, or closeness in time and place to the effect, and analyze and report the results. This may be combined by an internship in which you carry out a more extensive literature review and re-analyze data obtained by Moning (2014).


Besnard, D., & Hollnagel, E. (2014). I want to believe: Some myths about the management of industrial safety. Cognition, Technology, & Work, 16, 13-23. Moning, I. (2014). How do people recall articles about disaster? Effects of story grammar on recall of sharp end and blunt end causes. Bachelor thesis, University of Twente.

MCP7 - The effect of walking on visual processing - IfADo Dortmund

Supervisors: dr. Simone Borsci,  Supervisors at IfADo: prof. dr. Edmund Wascher, PD. dr. Gerhard Rinkenauer


In modern workplaces, it is becoming increasingly necessary to absorb visual information while walking. No matter whether it is the use of mobile handhelds (smartphone, tablet, special operating unit) or the visual information transfer via data glasses - as they are already used in some industrial contexts - the division of tasks between locomotion and information acquisition involves risks for both activities. It can be assumed both that the visual information reception makes the gait less stable and that the control of the gait can lead to reduced visual perception. The use of mobile technologies can therefore only be safe if the parameters and, above all, the limits of this interaction are known. One recent aim in the department is to systematically investigate the interactions between gait and visual perception in a recently established gait laboratory („Gait Realtime InterActive Lab (GRAIL)“) by integrating mobile EEG into this environment. In context of a master-project visual signal detection will be evaluated under 3 different gait conditions (standing, walking on flat surface, distorted walking). The experiment will be carried out at the IfADo in Dortmund, Germany, and will be supervised by Prof. Dr. Edmund Wascher and PD. Dr. Gerhard Rinkenauer.

MCP8 - Conceptual Learning

Supervisor: prof. dr. rank van der Velde



Concepts and their relations play a crucial role in human cognition. In particular, they are the building blocks of our semantic cognition, with which we understanding our environment. Concepts can vary from concrete, as given by the concept "dog", to abstract, such as the concept "honesty". Learning concepts can be based on learning perceptual classifications, such as learning the concept "dog" from classifying individual dogs, or by classifying or recognizing actions as performed by certain agents. But concepts can also be learned by combining other concepts and their relations. So, the concept "animal" could be learned from understanding the similarities between concepts such as "dogs" and "cats" and their differences with other concepts like "chair" or "house". In this way, we also learn relations between concepts, for example that a dog is an animal, but not every animal is a dog. Because concepts (such as actions) are typically learned in (certain) relations to each other, a 'conceptual space' (or knowledge base) can arise, which forms the basis for our semantic cognition. 

How we learn concepts and conceptual spaces, and how they are represented in the brain, is a topic of very active research. Learning of concepts and relations is also an important theme in machine learning. The key issue in this project concerns the way in which concepts and their relations in a given domain are learned and how they are combined to form a conceptual space. The domain can be chosen one, such as the "sport domain" (with concepts like "player" or "game") or the "health domain" (with concepts like "virus" or "medicine"). Or it could be designed for the project to study how humans learn such a new domain. The chosen topic can be studied with experimental techniques such as card sorting or priming studies. Or the conceptual space in a chosen domain could be designed (e.g., for use in machines) and evaluated by humans, for example by using questionnaires. Aspects of concept learning and conceptual spaces can also be modeled with computer modeling, such as Deep Learning or other techniques.

This is a general topic that can be specified into a 25EC or a 35EC thesis project.


Rouder, Jeffrey; Ratcliff, Roger (2006). "Comparing Exemplar and Rule-Based Theories of Categorization". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15: 9–13. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2006.00397.x.

Lambon-Ralph, M. A., Jefferies, E., Patterson, K. and Timothy T. Rogers, T. T. (2017). The neural and computational bases of semantic cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 18, 42–55. doi:10.1038/nrn.2016.150

Huth, A. G., de Heer, W. A., Griffiths, T. L., Theunissen, F. E., & Gallant, J. L. (2016). Natural speech reveals the semantic maps that tile human cerebral cortex. Nature, 532(7600), 453-458. doi:10.1038/nature17637