Sam Schwarzkopf is a cognitive and systems neuroscientist. The lofty goal of his research is to answer the question how we perceive the world around us and, ultimately, to understand what makes us who we are. Each person is unique. Even our perception of the environment varies quite dramatically between and within individuals.
A major aim of the lab’s research is therefore to reveal how this variability arises in the human brain. A related question that is critical for understanding what we actually perceive is what governs people’s perceptual judgements and decisions. In what way do our thoughts and feelings affect what we perceive, rather than merely how we react? This has wide-ranging implications from judging the size of a coffee cup before grasping it and finding an object hidden in a cluttered environment, to evaluating the attractiveness of a face or the aesthetic value of a piece of art.
Knowledge of how perception arises will thus advance our understanding of how much our perception actually shapes our actions. As such we are also interested in cross-cultural studies of perception and studies on special populations (e.g. autism spectrum disorders), as what and how we perceive the world may not only vary between individuals but also more broadly between different populations. Beyond fulfilling a basic scientific curiosity, this research therefore also has the potential to explain average behaviours of some groups. Moreover, it can reveal how the neural processes underlying perception can go awry in neurodegenerative illness or conditions like schizophrenia. In the long term, this knowledge may help reveal what another person, or an animal, actually experiences.
Naturally, from a philosophical point of view it remains unclear to what extent this last question can ever be answered at all. By necessity, most of our experiments are very basic and focus on the processing of simple visual or auditory stimuli. Only through a thorough understanding of basic processes can we ever hope to gain a better explanation of complex phenomena but I believe it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture of what our research is all about.