Senne Braem - CoCoFlex

Description of the PI

senne braem.jpgSenne Braem did his Masters in Experimental psychology at Ghent University, an internship at Humboldt University, Berlin, and worked as a PhD student back in Ghent University with Wim Notebaert and Tom Verguts (2009-2013). He worked as a postdoc with Marcel Brass and Jan De Houwer (2013-2015), and as a visiting researcher with Tobias Egner (Duke University, US) and Michael W. Cole (Rutgers University, US). Senne started as an assistant professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 2018, and as an associate research professor at Ghent University in 2020. Senne’s research uses behavioral paradigms and different neuroimaging techniques (e.g., fMRI, EEG) to try and explain arguably higher-order functions of human brain and behavior. Specifically, his work focuses mostly on the interactions between cognitive control (or “executive functions”) and different forms of learning, such as reinforcement learning, associative learning, fear conditioning, or learning via instructions.

Description of the project

Much of human behavior is characterized by the extraordinary ability to quickly reconfigure our mind, and switch between different tasks, often referred to as cognitive flexibility. While most psychologists agree on the kind of behaviors that fall under the term cognitive flexibility, we have only a poor understanding on what drives cognitive flexibility. When defining cognitive flexibility, its putative underlying processes are often distinguished from other functions of the brain by opposing them to low-level learning. In contrast, this project starts from the idea that cognitive flexibility is grounded in reinforcement learning and associative learning, and thus sensitive to the same rules that low-level learned behavior is subject to. Therefore, the first two aims of this project will be to demonstrate that the processes behind cognitive flexibility can be conditioned by reward and controlled by the context. This approach breaks with a traditional view on cognitive flexibility as originating from a vague, independent supervisory system. Instead, it allows us to get a grip on cognitive flexibility, and study its neural mechanisms more closely. To this end, a third aim will be to test the counterintuitive hypothesis that increased neural variability (or "noise") in control regions of the brain is what allows for cognitive flexibility. Finally, we will apply this different way of understanding cognitive flexibility to the clinical domain. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been linked to deficits in cognitive flexibility, but studies have shown mixed results. Accordingly, a fourth aim will be to further the understanding of the assumed deficits in cognitive flexibility related to ASD. Overall, this project intends to change the current way of thinking about cognitive flexibility, and cognitive control more generally, and to cause a paradigmatic shift in how we go about assessing its neural mechanisms and deficits in clinical conditions like ASD.


tel: +32 9 264 94 32