The Mind and the Brain in UChicago’s Human Performance Lab

Digital BrainRecent scientific inquiry into the neurological basis of human behavior seems to tell us one thing about the field: It’s all about me. Or you. Or anyone, for that matter.  As traditional psychology and neurobiology have begun to suggest a closer relationship between a person’s identity and behavior and his or her brain as a physical structure, research on the relationship between the brain and the mind has taken off.

Enter cognitive neuroscience. A small but burgeoning field, it seeks to bridge the gap that currently exists between cognitive psychology and neurology.  “A lot of cognitive psychology has to do with behavior and trying to get at more abstract representations of the mind. Cognitive neuroscience looks at how the brain and the mind are related,” said Carly Kontra, a PhD student working in University of Chicago professor Sian Beilock’s “Human Performance Lab.”

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the number one tool for getting at this abstract representation of the mind is technology, a far cry from the Freudian psychoanalysis used in the past. “Our lab is a lot of fMRI research, which is looking at activation in the brain—so not necessarily structural changes, but differences in connectivity; parts of the brain that are working together to do different tasks; that kind of thing,” Kontra said. “We also look at how brain activity relates to different cognitive constructs, so we look at things like working memory, which is one measure of executive function. Or, we look at changes in brain activity when students are learning.”

fMRI, or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, allows researchers to record changes in brain activity by measuring the Blood Oxygen Level Dependent (BOLD) response. As a certain area of the brain is activated, blood flow to that area increases, along with the presence of oxygen.  By comparing blood and oxygen levels in different areas of the brain, researchers can map the activation of parts of the brain as different stimuli are introduced.1 For instance, when one is problem-solving, the prefrontal cortex—a region of the brain associated with higher-level thinking—shows a higher BOLD response than other segments of the neural anatomy.2

In particular, Kontra’s research uses fMRI technology and the BOLD metric to study embodied learning. A fairly new field, embodied learning examines the relationship between cognition and the motor system, or learning and bodily movement.  Currently, Kontra studies two different learning processes in undergraduate physics students.  Participants learn about torque and angular momentum either by manipulating a gyroscope (embodied learning) or by watching a demonstration (the experiment’s control condition).  By comparing and contrasting brain activation in both conditions using fMRI, Kontra is able to view the neural effect of the two different styles of learning.  She also tested these students on the concepts they learned, revealing that those who used the gyroscope were more successful.

When asked about the relationship between the machines she works with and neural activity, Kontra said, “It’s a little bit indirect, but it’s still given us a lot of good information about how the brain is related to behavior.  What we try to do is hone in on the specifics of behavior that we’re interested in and do a lot of fancy comparisons to get at exactly the question we’re interested in.  The technology is improving really rapidly and it’s exciting.”  While the measurements yielded by technology cannot directly provide explanations of behavior, the data can be interpreted by scientists like Kontra to yield meaningful patterns.

The Human Performance Lab is not limited to fMRI research.  Recently, Dr. Beilock used electroencephalography (EEG) to determine how neural activity corresponds to different types of physical gestures.  EEG measures the frequency of electrical activity on the cortex of the brain using sensors applied to the scalp.  Dr. Beilock used EEG to measure the electrical activation of the brain, given in microvolts, when watching a person use deictic gesture (pointing) versus iconic gesture (acting something out).  Dr. Beilock discovered mirror neurons—neurons that respond the same way both when a person watches someone perform a task and when she performs the same task herself—reacted more to the iconic gesture than deictic gesture.

However, Dr. Beilock’s lab does not just study the mind using machines: they also measure levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, in an attempt to further understand the relationship between memory and stress.3 Additionally, the Human Performance Lab has also recently studied the correlation between math teacher bias—who the teacher believes will perform well—and student testing anxiety.4

When asked why “performance” was incorporated into the lab’s title, Kontra said that the broadness of the word was a deliberate attempt to cover all measures of human ability.  However, she did add that the lab focuses on “people under high stress,” or on “measures of comprehension,” as in her physics work.

While it’s not yet possible to visualize the mind, the Human Performance Lab is bringing this reality closer by working to visualize the brain and correlate these images with behavior.  fMRI, EEG, and other neuroimaging technologies are fully capable of providing these visuals. But when it comes to the finding the link between the brain and the mind—between the tangible and the intangible—it’s all about the analytical work done by those in the Human Performance Lab and in other labs like it.


  1. fMRI- Functional MRI (Brain Mapping),” last modified 2012.
  2. Newman, S., Pruce, B., Rusia, A., & Burns Jr., T, “The Effect of Strategy on Problem Solving: An fMRI Study,” The Journal of Problem Solving 3 (2010), 1-26.
  3. Mattarella-Micke, A., Mateo, J., Kozak, M. N., Foster, K., & Beilock, S. L, “Choke or thrive? The relation between salivary cortisol and math performance depends on individual differences in working memory and math anxiety,” Emotion 11 (2011), 1000-1005.
  4. University of Chicago Human Performance Lab Publications,” last modified 2012.
  5. Image credit (Creative Commons): digitalbob8. “Digital drugs binaural beats.” Last modified November 12, 2009.

Sydney Reitz is a second-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in Comparative Human Development and pursuing a pre-medical track. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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