Research highlights

Lua Koenig chats with Martijn Wokke

Martijn Wokke is a post-doctoral researcher who has been with the CRCN since August. He initially contacted Axel Cleeremans as part of his application for a different post-doctoral position, but upon meeting him, realised that his alignment of interests with the CO3 lab would be valuable, especially in the context of Cleeremans’ European Research Council grant, which is in its initial phases. Martijn studies how metacognition modulates decision processes and also the degree of awareness that is available at different levels of expertise. To this end he uses methods like EEG (electroencephalography), TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). In other words, he investigates how learning shapes our awareness, and this an important aspect of the upcoming ERC project. His main aim is to investigate to what extent the cerebral processes associated with decision-making and those associated with metacognition are overlapping systems.


Can you talk about your educational background?
After high school I studied History for a year, and realised that I was more captivated by the theory than by the specific details of historical research. After that I decided to apply to medical school, because I was interested in the brain. In the Netherlands there is a sort of lottery where you are assigned a number which determines whether you can apply to medical school. I was very optimistic, and had already subscribed to a magazine – the Dutch Journal of Medicine – but then I was eliminated through the lottery process. In order to pursue this interest I decided to apply for a medical biology course. I went with a friend to the admissions office and as we had not studied biology in high school we were not eligible for the course. This was the last day for all admissions so we hurried to the psychology department, because the credits earned in this course would also count towards medical school. So I began studying psychology by complete coincidence, and always with the aim of someday entering medical school. However, one of the courses I studied was biological psychology and I realised that this was exactly what I was interested in. I did my psychology degree and masters part-time in the University of Amsterdam, so it took me eight years as I was working during my studies, sometimes up to fifty hours a week. As I was really interested in the work of Victor Lamme, I stayed in Amsterdam and did my Ph.D. with him.

Lua Koenig chats with Martijn Wokke


Did you already specialise in some of the things you were interested in during your masters?

During my research project I studied EEG and facial perception and some aspects of consciousness. These relate to some of Axel Cleeremans’ interests, only Victor Lamme comes from a background which is neurophysiological, with a huge emphasis on neuroimaging. He does some behavioural work but mostly EEG and MRI. I did my masters research project with Stephen Scholte, who worked with Victor, and who now has his own research group. A position in his lab then became available for a TMS Ph.D. I got the job and had to set up a whole new TMS lab and develop neuronavigation systems that did not work yet. I learned how to use TMS in the process. It took a lot of time, especially because I wanted to combine TMS with EEG and that’s a bit of a horror story… That is, with EEG you measure subtle brain signals and with TMS you’re dropping a bomb into the EEG signal – so you need to be extremely precise to get rid of this noise. If you stimulate too little then there is no behavioural effect of TMS, but if you stimulate too much the EEG signal is no longer usable. So that took some time – for the first two years of my PhD I was setting up the lab for this EEG-TMS testing.


Did you already know what you wanted to test with these two methods?
The idea was already clear but I began some other projects in parallel that became more interesting to me. That’s how it usually goes – the questions you start with lead you to find your own way. After 5 years doing my Ph.D. I started some postdoc study on slightly higher level cognitive processes, no longer studying very low level facial processes. That is, my study was more related to decision-making and the role of consciousness in decision-making, more specifically the difference between intuitive decision processes and rational processes. This has something to do with how much knowledge you have about your own decision process although this is still debated. In the Daniel Kahnemann framework, there is a dual process concept whereby an intuitive system and a rational system coexist. I don’t really think that way about these processes; I think they are more similar, and the transition between modes of decision-making is more gradual, with different levels of consciousness. It is really interesting to me that with intuitive decision-making, you have some awareness of what to decide but very little awareness of why you decide it.


How do you think your research contributes to an understanding of consciousness?
I study how the level of expertise influences the amount of consciousness you have when making decisions. This is the common ground I have with Axel Cleeremans on his ERC project. I think that consciousness is also related to how much you learn depending on what you are doing; therefore I try to find out how fluctuations in the degree of expertise co-vary with the amount of consciousness you have about your decision process. For instance it could be that when you start learning something, you have no insight at all; after learning a certain amount, you are conscious of what you are doing, but if you are highly expert then decisions are made on an intuitive level again because they become highly automatized and conscious aspects are lost. This is very interesting to me, especially with the recording of brain signals, and the study of how different regions interact during the build-up of expertise.


This brings me to my next question: to what extent do you conceive of the methods you use, like brain imaging, TMS or EEG, as accurate measures of conscious processes, and how they relate to the subjective experience of consciousness?

The problem with using subjective measures of consciousness is that they rely on personal reports, and sometimes subjects actually have more consciousness than they think they have. Difficulties also arise because there is no clear definition of consciousness yet. Some people claim that you can have consciousness without access to it, like a sort of phenomenal awareness. Others claim that you only have consciousness if you are able to report about it, in some sense equating consciousness with language. I think split-brain patients [who have a disrupted connection between the hemispheres of the brain] are a good example in this debate: if you present a picture of a hammer to their left visual field, they are unable to report about the hammer because it is processed in the right hemisphere , where there are no language centers. They typically respond that they cannot see anything at all. Interestingly, when asked to draw what they see, they draw a hammer. Some suggest that the inability to report about the hammer is evidence that they are not aware of it. But clearly there is information processing ongoing in the brain, in such a degree that it can influence behaviour. So: is that person aware of the hammer or not? I focus on more gradual, metacognitive processes and less on this consciousness discussion and how it can be defined. However I do think that my research could have an indirect impact on the debate. When I write a paper about my research the focus is less on consciousness, than on how expertise influences yourknowledge about your own decision processes, thus avoiding the discussion about “the C word”.


Do you think your research has practical applications?
I think it has many applications, if you consider medical situations where experts make very rapid decisions – if they lose conscious access to their decision process, this can be harmful when certain routines are no longer effective. It would be interesting to try and find a way to influence that. Moreover, using the internet provokes a huge amount of information processing, a lot of which is not fully conscious. Figuring out how your behaviour is modulated accordingly, could help to determine certain advertising strategies. Another example is the study of the influence of biases in decision making, especially with juries and judges, offering the possibility of developing training and advice for expert decision-makers. Finally, my research could shed light on sports, when extremely rapid, intuitive decisions are made like in a penalty shoot out. Studying how the stress component influences the decision process could help to define new ways of training high-level athletes.


Is there a relationship between your study on intuitive and rational decision-making and your interest in creativity?
My interest in creativity is somewhat unrelated, but creativity is connected to intuitive decision making. That is, during the creative process, you have little explicit knowledge about what you are doing – the process occurs more like an insight. I think its interesting how this complex pattern of information processing is ongoing at a subconscious level and then “pops up”. In this sense decision-making and metacognition are related to creativity, and it would be interesting to study the relationship between high or low metacognition, and levels of creativity.


Do you think academic research would benefit from being available to a broader audience?
The first thing that is wrong now about how the general public accesses scientific findings is that it is transferred through a media that does not fully understand it. What happens is that some funny effects are highly exposed in the media but they are completely distorted and even nonsensical, and everybody who works in psychology and neuroscience knows it. These studies are published, but are horribly conducted and sometimes even fraudulous. Journalists claim that as a scientist I cannot transfer knowledge well to the public, in a way that everybody will understand, so they write about the studies in their own form – and when I read it, it doesn’t make sense anymore: it is over-simplified and the reporter sometimes includes his own added creativity. If reporters have a real scientific interest it is essential for them not to twist the facts, in order to produce a genuine report. This distortion stems from a desire to please the public, whereby studies have to be more “sexy” than they are. In fact, this is also a problem with published articles, where they are maneuveured to be more appealin. I think this problem is slowly improving, because people understand that science should be science, without any nonsense, but it is still out there a lot. Secondly, I think scientists should try to participate in public events as much as possible to talk about what they study. This is what I try to do, especially with children, who are old enough to understand what is going on, and to be inspired by neuroscience. It is also important for scientists to use ressources like public lectures, blogs and Facebook. There should also be more examples of good science sections on popular websites that are scientifically correct.


Do you think that in your own studies you would benefit from science being communicated to a larger audience?

I try to do this myself as much as possible. When I think a study is interesting for the general public I will try to diffuse it by writing about it on popular science websites or on Twitter for example. I did some work on really low-level facial processes and I don’t think that is very interesting for a general public because it is really too fundamental, but some topics are a lot more appealing and accessible. Open-access journals are also really good – it is disgraceful that organisations pay for scientists to do research, then researchers pay to get it published, then the public pays to see the article…


Research highlight by Lua Koenig.