— Motivated Cognition Lab

On September 1st, 2018, I will leave my post at the University of Trento to take up a position as Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham, UK.

As always, I am very interested in hearing from potential PhD students and postdoctoral scholars and in supporting applications for funding.

In particular, applications for the Marie Cure Individual Fellowship are accepted from April 12th, 2018 (with a September 12 deadline). I would be very happy to talk with applicants about potential projects and the possibility of carrying this grant at Birmingham.

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Poppy’s first first-authored paper! Congratulations Poppy!

Sharp, Melcher, & Hickey (2018). Endogenous attention modulates the temporal window of integration. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics.

Constructing useful representations of our visual environment requires the ability to selectively pay attention to particular locations at specific moments. Whilst there has been much investigation on the influence of selective attention on spatial discrimination, less is known about its influence on temporal discrimination. In particular, little is known about how endogenous attention influences two fundamental and opposing temporal processes: segregation – the parsing of the visual scene over time into separate features, and integration – the binding together of related elements. In four experiments, we tested how endogenous cueing to a location influences each of these opposing processes. Results demonstrate a strong cueing effect on both segregation and integration. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that endogenous attention can influence both of these opposing processes in a flexible manner. The finding has implications for arbitrating between accounts of the multiple modulatory mechanisms comprising selective attention.


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Attentional bias for substance-related stimuli in addictive behaviours: An ERP study on tobacco users.

Marco Pario


Nt or Pd?: Analysis of the N2pc component describes the process of attentional allocation with respect to angry or neutral facial expressions.

Leonardo Pimpini


Congratulations Marco and Leo!

Leo is beginning a PhD with Anne Roefs at the University of Maastricht. Good luck Leo!



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A long one representing years of work from Ludwig.

Barbaro, L., Peelen, M.V., & Hickey, C  (in press). Valence, not utility, underlies reward-driven prioritization in human vision. Journal of Neuroscience. <link>

Objects associated with reward draw attention and evoke enhanced activity in visual cortex. What is the underlying mechanism? One possibility is that reward’s impact on vision is mediated by unique circuitry that modulates sensory processing, selectively increasing the salience of reward-associated stimuli. Alternatively, effects of reward may be part of a more general mechanism that prioritizes the processing of any beneficial object, importantly including stimuli that are associated with the evasion of loss. Here, we test these competing hypotheses by having male and female humans detect naturalistic objects associated with monetary reward, the evasion of equivalent loss, or neither of these. If vision is economically normative, processing of objects associated to reward and evasion of loss should be prioritized relative to neutral stimuli. Results from fMRI and behavioural experiments show that this is not the case: while objects associated with reward were better detected and represented in ventral visual cortex, detection and representation of stimuli associated with the evasion of loss was degraded. Representations in parietal cortex reveal a notable exception to this pattern, showing enhanced encoding of both reward- and loss-associated stimuli. Experience-driven visual prioritization can thus be economically irrational, driven by valence rather than objective utility.



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110 cum laude! Complimenti Nicholas!

How reward modulates visually guided and internally guided force. 

Nicholas Menghi
Advisors: Clayton Hickey and Giorgio Coricelli.




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Reward-priming impacts visual working memory maintenance: Evidence from human electrophysiology

Infanti, Hickey, Menghi, & Turatto, 2017, Visual Cognition

Reward can benefit visual processing of reward-associated objects in a non-strategic way. Recent studies have suggested that such influence extends also to visual working memory (VWM) representations of reward-associated stimuli. However, it is not clear yet which mechanisms underlie the behavioural effects in VWM tasks: reward could directly impact our ability to maintain representations in VWM or it could influence memory indirectly via priming of attentional selection. To distinguish between these alternatives we measured event-related potential indices of selective attention – the N2pc – and VWM maintenance – the CDA (contralateral delay activity) – while participants completed a VWM task. Results show that reward outcome in one trial caused similarly coloured targets to be strongly represented in VWM in subsequent trials, as expressed in a larger amplitude CDA. This was not preceded by a corresponding effect on attentional selection, in so far as our key manipulation had no impact on the N2pc. In a second experiment, we found that reward priming produced a behavioural benefit that emerged over time, suggesting the representations of reward-associated items stored in VWM are more resistant to interference and decay. We conclude that when the task stresses VWM maintenance, it is at this representational level that reward will have impact.

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A paper based on work completed during Daniel’s very productive short sabbatical in Rovereto!

Motivation and short-term memory in visual search: Attention’s accelerator revisited.

Schneider, Bonmassar, & Hickey (2017, Cortex)

A cue indicating the possibility of cash reward will cause participants to perform memory-based visual search more efficiently. Thus if participants know there is money to be earned, they will be fast and accurate in finding a remembered object in a search display. A recent study has suggested that this performance benefit might reflect the use of multiple memory systems: when needed, participants can maintain the to-be-remembered object in both long-term and short-term visual memory and this redundancy benefits identification during search (Reinhart, McClenahan & Woodman, Psychological Science 2016, 27(6), 790-798). Here we test this compelling hypothesis. We had participants complete a memory-based visual search task involving a reward cue that either preceded presentation of the to-be-remembered target (pre-cue) or followed it (retro-cue). We tracked memory representation using two components of the ERP: contralateral delay activity (CDA), reflecting short-term visual memory, and the anterior P170, reflecting long-term storage. Results show that only the pre-cue impacted our ERP indices of memory. However, both types of cue elicited frontal ERP activity tied to reward processing, and both had equivalent impact on visual search behavior and associated ERP components. Reward prospect thus has an impact on memory-guided visual search, but this does not appear to be necessarily mediated by a change in visual memory representations. Our results demonstrate that the impact of reward prospect on search is not a simple product of improved memory for target templates.


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On June 16th, 2017, a mini-workshop on ‘Motivation, selection, and information-seeking’ will take place at the Center for Mind / Brain Science (CIMEC) of the University of Trento, Italy.

Confirmed speakers are:

Leonardo Chelazzi (University of Verona, IT)
Giorgio Coricelli (University of Trento, IT; University of Southern California, USA)
Jackie Gottlieb (Columbia University, USA)
Clayton Hickey (University of Trento, IT)
Jane Raymond (Birmingham University, UK)

Each speaker will give a 40 minute talk to be followed by a 20 minute question period.

The workshop will be held in the Aula Magna of Palazzo Piomarta, which is located at Corso Bettini 84, Rovereto, Italy. Talks will begin at 11 am and finish by 6pm. (Note that the workshop is preceded by a 10am colloquium at the same location by Gregor Thut of the University of Glasgow).

All are welcome, there is no fee, and no formal registration is required. Drop me a quick note if you plan on coming (clayton.hickey@unitn.it).

Hope you can join us!


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Reward selectively modulates the lingering neural representation of recently attended objects in natural scenes.

Hickey & Peelen

Theories of reinforcement learning and approach behaviour suggest that reward can increase the perceptual salience of environmental stimuli, ensuring that potential predictors of outcome are noticed in the future. But outcome commonly follows visual processing of the environment, occurring even when potential reward cues have long disappeared. How can reward feedback retroactively cause now-absent stimuli to become attention-drawing in the future? One possibility is that reward and attention interact to prime lingering visual representations of attended stimuli that sustain through the interval separating stimulus and outcome. Here we test this idea using multivariate pattern analysis of fMRI data collected from male and female humans. While in the scanner, participants searched for examples of target categories in briefly-presented pictures of city- and landscapes. Correct task performance was followed by reward feedback that could randomly have either high or low magnitude. Analysis showed that high-magnitude reward feedback boosted the lingering representation of target categories while reducing the representation of nontarget categories. The magnitude of this effect in each participant predicted the behavioural impact of reward on search performance in subsequent trials. Other analyses show that sensitivity to reward – as expressed in a personality questionnaire and in reactivity to reward feedback in the dopaminergic midbrain – predicted reward-elicited variance in lingering target and nontarget representations. Credit for rewarding outcome thus appears to be assigned to the target representation, causing the visual system to become sensitized for similar objects in the future.

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Jacqueline Gottljgottliebieb, of Columbia University NY, is visiting the Center for Mind / Brain Science at the University of Trento on a 10-week sabbatical.

Jackie will be speaking in a colloquium talk at 2pm on May 12th, 2017 (Fedrigotti 3rd floor conference room). All are welcome!



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