University of Bergen, Norway
What does your research focus on?
Involuntary cognition, that is: complex mental acts which occur without volition or intention to perform them. For instance, involuntary retrieval of episodic memories, having a song “stuck” in your head, auditory hallucinations. Thus, such experiences range from benign features of everyday life to symptoms of psychiatric disorders, which is apparently determined by how much cognitive control you are able to exert over the experience once you become conscious of it. I am interested in how different systems (in cognitive and neural terms) interact to produce such experiences, and how they are related to perception of external stimuli.
What drew you to this line of research and why is it exciting to you?
At first, I thought that the only really interesting thing would be studying patients with executive dysfunctions, because that is when involuntary cognition and behavior are most salient. However, there is plenty of variation in the cognitive control abilities outside of the clinical spectrum, both between as well as within individuals. The challenging and most exciting part is modeling these cognitive events which, by definition, are subjectively unpredictable. How we could transfer such research outside of laboratory — for instance, helping people cope with unpleasant auditory hallucinations is of course very interesting.
Who were/are your mentors or scientific influences?
My undergraduate studies at University of Tartu (Estonia) influenced me a lot. The psychology department, with Jüri Allik at the helm, was notable for its uncompromising, almost fierce commitment to scientific rigor, both in lecture halls as well as in the arena of public debate. I learned a lot about the role and duties of a psychologist in society. To hear visiting Endel Tulving discuss memory systems gave me, quite understandably, a push towards trying to understand how cognitive systems interact. Lars Nyberg, who was my PhD supervisor, has an extraordinary knack for doing interdisciplinary research, identifying interesting research questions at the intersection of multiple fields. Kenneth Hugdahl, my postdoctoral mentor, has created a unique research environment which stimulates excellence, quite possibly because he never lets you forget the importance of keeping your eyes on the “big picture.”
What’s your future research agenda?
Figuring out what is the contribution of so-called spontaneous activation in auditory brain areas to auditory stimulus processing and auditory hallucinations.
What publication are you most proud of?
Kompus, K., Eichele, T., Hugdahl, K., and Nyberg, L. (2011). Multimodal imaging of incidental retrieval: The low route to memory. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23, 947–960.
This collaborative project had many challenges, from operationalizing the cognitive construct to the very technical aspects of relating the data from two brain imaging modalities to each other. It took hard work at all stages, which, I believe, paid off.