As a junior majoring in cognitive science (computation track), Sean Anderson is interested in machine learning, cognition, and cognitive neuroscience. Last year, Sean had his first opportunity to explore these topics from a research perspective.

With scholarship support from the Weinberg Institute, Sean worked as a Research Assistant in U-M’s Cognition, Control, and Action Lab. The experience was invaluable, says Sean, and helped refine his academic and research path:

"Working in the lab gave me the chance to see what goes on in science behind the scenes--reading what someone else did, throwing ideas back and forth, and building something to show an assumption is not quite right. And that made me want to do it that much more."

Musicians and Athletes

In the lab, Sean assisted in analyzing data and later helped conduct lab experiments. The research explored the cognitive control processes at work when a person--such as a musician or an athlete--is under stress to perform at a high level. While exerting “goal-directed cognitive control” is generally beneficial in handling day-to-day activities, this strategy can backfire in high-pressure situations when thinking too much about a well-learned action sabotages its execution.

“Imagine training for a sport like baseball pitching,” explains Sean. “You could mentally focus on your pitching arm or the ball speeding across home plate. All the literature so far says that focusing on the latter is better, but we don’t really know how or why. Our experiment was exciting because it gave us a chance to take a deeper look into why external focus is better.”

fMRI in the Lab

In the lab experiment, Sean worked with a colleague to design and develop a task using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that tested the effects of attentional focus on motor learning--a task with complex criteria.

“In the fMRIi machine, you have to remain motionless,” explains Sean. “It’s also sensitive to magnets; that’s how it computes. So you can’t use electricity. All we had to work with were grip-force sensors. When you squeeze, it measures the pressure of your grip. Our goal was to come up with a task that used these sensors to draw out attentional effects on learning and focus. So we asked subjects to play essentially a short video-game while inside the scanner.”

Research Applications

As a musician who plays the French Horn, Sean foresees many applications for this type of cognitive science research. As he explains it: “Where should musicians focus most while they’re practicing? What’s the best way for an athlete to organize their training to prepare for their ‘high-pressure’ moment?”

With his research experience continuing in a different lab and graduation ahead, Sean is looking forward to taking the next step in his academic career.

“I’d like to pursue a PhD in cognition and cognitive neuroscience,” says Sean, “and understand how computation, in both biological and artificial forms, can power creativity, learning, and performance.”