Bob Spunt

California Institute of Technology

What does your research focus on?

My research seeks to understand the neurocognitive processes that allow humans to perceive and explain human behaviors. My theoretical approach is primarily drawn from attribution theories from social psychology, while my methodological approach is primarily drawn from the social and cognitive neurosciences, in particular, the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging. So far, my work has been concerned with characterizing the neural systems that enable the identification and causal explanation of goal-directed actions and expressions of emotion.

What drew you to this line of research and why is it exciting to you?

I have always been fascinated by the historically powerful idea that human nature is best characterized by two fundamentally different sorts of reality: material bodies and immaterial minds. This is the seed of my fascination with attribution, which bridges and ultimately entwines these two realities, giving us the ability to see the mind as embodied and the body as the expression of the mind. My work is ultimately an effort to understand how the brain allows us to make this link between bodies and minds.

Who were/are your mentors or scientific influences?

I credit much of my intellectual approach to human psychology to the existential phenomenologists Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. From studying them as an undergraduate, I discovered a view of human nature that is nearly axiomatic in social psychology; that the mind is at bottom and by necessity situated, shaping and shaped by the social world. Also as an undergraduate, I took a course with the neuropsychologist Dr. Robert Knight who taught me that a powerful approach to understanding the mind is understanding the brain. Thankfully, I found a doctoral mentor who shared my passion for both phenomenology and the brain, Matthew Lieberman. Matt took me, scattered and ungrounded, and molded me into a social cognitive neuroscientist. Currently, I am grateful to be receiving further molding from my postdoctoral mentor, Ralph Adolphs.

What’s your future research agenda?

My long-term research goal is to contribute to the development of a neurocognitive model of social causal attribution. Such a goal will require a systematic program of research examining numerous factors. For example, such a model will need to specify the conditions (both contextual and dispositional) that motivate attributional processing; consider how attributional processing varies by the type of event being explained (e.g., own vs. other behavior; action vs. emotion); and understand the conditions under which attributional biases are (or are not) corrected.

What publication are you most proud of?

Spunt, R. P., & Lieberman, M. D. (2012). Dissociating modality-specific and supramodal neural systems for action understanding. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(10), 3575–3583. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5715-11.2012

I am most proud of my 2012 publication in the Journal of Neuroscience. I see the study reported there as the culmination of my doctoral research examining the brain systems involved in making attributions about goal-directed actions.

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