Most of my research focuses on the philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience. Although the majority of my projects pertain to memory, I am also interested in the relationship between attention and consciousness. In addition, I am interested in the way in which cognitive functions are individuated in cognitive science and neuroscience. Finally, I also do research in certain aspects of moral psychology. My work is both theoretical and experimental. I believe many philosophical questions about the mind can be answered by combining traditional philosophical approaches with the investigative methodologies of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Here is a summary of these research projects:
My research on memory is both theoretical and experimental, as it combines behavioral, patient-based and fMRI methods. My main area of research is episodic memory, particularly autobiographical memory. Recent evidence in cognitive neuroscience suggests that episodic future thinking (i.e. our capacity to imagine what might happen in our future) is largely dependent on episodic memory. Building upon this results, I examine the extent to which episodic memory supports episodic counterfactual thinking, i.e. thoughts of what could have happened in one’s own life but did not occur. On the basis of several experimental results, I have put forth a view in which episodic autobiographical memory is an integrated subsystem of a larger cognitive system, the function of which is to flexibly recombine perceptual representations into thoughts of what could have happened in the past to optimize our predictions about what may happen in the future. I also argue that this hypothesis accounts for some regularities exhibited by ordinary false and distorted memories. Additionally, I am interested in understanding the neural underpinnings of item memory (i.e., the capacity to encode and retrieve information about individual items) and relational memory (i.e., the capacity to encode and retrieve information about relations between items) in healthy older adults and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. I am also interested in the interaction between attention and relational memory during encoding and retrieval of relational information in healthy young adults, healthy older adults, and older adults with amnestic mild cognitive impairment.
2. Cognitive functions
Ultimately, my interest in the connection between different cognitive faculties (e.g. memory and imagination, and memory and attention) is philosophical. I believe folk psychological ways of individuating cognitive functions are misleading. In order to come up with an adequate functional analysis of the mind philosophers need to revise, and sometimes reject, our pre-theoretical strategies to categorize psychological systems. I think this is precisely what occurs with memory and imagination, and—as I mention below—consciousness and attention. Folk psychological ways of categorizing the realm of the mental need not square with the ways in which scientific psychology classifies the same phenomena. The theoretical consequences of this categorical mismatch are profound, and it is my hope to investigate its implications for philosophy of mind and cognitive science in the coming years.
3. Attention and consciousness
Philosophers and cognitive scientists have recently been arguing about the specific role attention plays in our conscious experience. Some suggest that attention is necessary and sufficient for consciousness, some that it is necessary but not sufficient, and some that it is neither. Evidence in favor of one view or another have been marshaled by its supporters, and there are copious alternative interpretations of experimental results. I believe these discussions are plagued with misconceptions, false assumptions about the notions of ‘consciousness’ and ‘attention’, and faulty interpretations of empirical results. I am interested in clarifying conceptual and methodological difficulties in the empirical study of the relationship between attention and consciousness.
4. Moral psychology
In tandem with my work on the philosophy of cognitive neuroscience, I have explored some questions in moral psychology. For instance, I have put forth an interpretation of Nozick’s experience machine in terms of the status quo bias, a well-established psychological effect uncovered by behavioral economists. Also, I have presented some empirical evidence suggesting that recent advances in neuroscience may not, by themselves, affect people’s judgments of responsibility—regardless of whether they should. Currently, I am working on a methodological project in which I question the practice, followed by some experimental philosophers, of postulating different cognitive processes as a result of statistically different responses between subjects. I show how you can get the same statistical difference by manipulating a variable that was not controlled for in some of those studies, but which could also explain the effect. My point, however, is not that such a variable is what ultimately explains the effect, but rather that the use of vignettes in some studies can obfuscate the fact that the experimenter isn’t in control of the independent variable, in which case talk of underlying causal processes is unwarranted. But my assessment isn’t completely negative. I believe moral psychology could be hugely improved with methodologies that afford a tighter control of independent variables.