Thursday, February 28, 2013

Student Spotlight: Annelinde Vandenbroucke

Welcome to our fourth Student Spotlight interview. This one features Annelinde Vandenbroucke, a cognitive neuroscience Ph.D. student. It was conducted by Kingson Man, the 2012-2013 chair of the ASSC student committee. 

Kingson Man: Hi Annelinde! Thank you for giving us this peek into the life of a young consciousness scientist. First question: would you rather fight 1 horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?

Annelinde Vandenbroucke: Very difficult. I’d go for 100 duck-sized horses, as the thought of a horse-sized duck with an enormous beak scares me more. I imagine if I had a club, I could swing those little horses away, while with a huge duck, I wouldn’t know what to do…

Man: Are clubs allowable? I'll check the rule book. Meanwhile, please tell us briefly about your work: what, where, with whom, and why taxpayers should keep funding it.

Vandenbroucke: I’m doing my PhD at the University of Amsterdam, in the Cognitive Neuroscience Group at the Brain & Cognition Department. My supervisor is Victor Lamme and I collaborate with Johannes Fahrenfort, Ilja Sligte, Martijn Wokke, and many more. My PhD is about the qualities of perception without attention, or, what can your visual system still process if you don’t pay attention to a certain stimulus. In my experiments, I have seen that the visual system actually does quite well without the interference (or at least, with little interference), of attention. Objects are processed as integrated wholes, and many items can be remembered even when attention is focused on a different task. First of all, I think academic research should be funded in general, because obtaining knowledge is an extremely important piece of development on all levels. I believe that my type of research in particular can help to understand and therefore perhaps “optimize’’ perception, in the sense that we learn how to improve our ability to obtain and maintain visual information.  

Man: What's the best career advice you've received?

Vandenbroucke: 1. Don’t be afraid to contact people whom you find interesting and 2. try to always ask at least one question.

Man: What's the worst career advice you've received (besides that time I told you to challenge Ned Block to a sake drinking contest at ASSC 15 Kyoto)? 

Vandenbroucke: Pfiew, really wouldn’t know….

Man: Give me two names: who is the rightest and who is the wrongest in the field of consciousness today? You don't have to specify which is which.

Vandenbroucke: I thought hard about this question, but actually, I can’t give you an answer. I think every theory that’s out there today is neither totally wrong nor totally right, we just don’t know yet. I sympathize most with those trying to distinguish attention from consciousness, because I think that saying that only through attention you can reach conscious processing is nonsense. On the other hand, I can also appreciate theories proposing that consciousness is all about functions, maybe not necessarily attention, but cognitive functions in general. Then again, when does something qualify as a function? In conclusion, I’m going back and forth on the issue, so no clear answer here.

Man: That's a very considered and politic answer to an impolitic question. Tell us about a paper or two in consciousness research that you've read and loved in the past year?

Vandenbroucke: When I find myself thinking about articles that I loved reading the past year, a lot of them are not necessarily about consciousness, but about attention or working memory. There is a paper that I’ve been reading that’s not from 2012, but I liked it a lot. It’s a study by Rahnev et al, 2011, that looked at objective and subjective responses for attended and unattended items. It shows that when you equate detection sensitivity, you get different response criteria for attended and unattended items. Although I don’t fully agree with the conclusions the authors draw, I do think their study is set up very well and shows that it is important to control for response factors that cause differences between conditions and isolate the factors you are interested in. It inspired me to do a particular experiment last year and that is what I like most about articles: when they make you want to do more research.

Man: When and how did you initially become interested in consciousness? 

Vandenbroucke: I was doing my masters (General Research Master Psychology – in The Netherlands, a masters and PhD are two separate programmes) when I was at a party. Somebody told me that for some reason, he could always tell whether something was bothering somebody, and thereby often fell into heavy conversations, as people felt he was easy to talk too (probably, this person – I don’t remember who it was – either told this after I told him I study Psychology…You often get these types of reply then, or he was hitting on me). As I was focusing on visual perception already, I wasn’t interested in the clinical part, but wondered what made him ‘see’ that other people were troubled. I thought people might also pick these things up unconsciously, and there might even be visual clues that can be ‘read’ without the reader knowing why he/she has this information. I kept wondering whether there would be large individual differences in picking up and binding (un)conscious information and how I could do research on this. Shortly after, I followed a course on conscious and unconscious processing by Victor Lamme. When he gave a lecture about iconic memory and what kind of role it might have in conscious processing, I was convinced that this was the topic that I should study. I never got to linking visual perception of faces and conscious/unconscious information processing though, but perhaps someday…

Man: Do you believe the Hard Problem will be (dis)solved within our lifetimes? 

Vandenbroucke: If it will be solved, it will not be in our lifetimes. If it will be dissolved, that could happen within in our lifetimes.

Man: What's the next step for you, professionally? What is your assessment of the academic or "alternative" job climate out there?

Vandenbroucke: Ideally, I would like to do a PostDoc in the United States, so I’m preparing to write a grant proposal. I’m still realistic in the sense that I know that there are not many places out there, and there’s of course the possibility that I won’t get a grant or position at a university. I believe then I could find my way doing research in an institute, perhaps with more social relevance. In my PhD, I’ve learned that I like doing research a lot, and I believe there are still plenty of opportunities of doing research outside academic science, even though you may have to shift your specialty.

Man: I've often been struck by how *interesting* our colleagues are – perhaps the field of consciousness is self-selecting in this regard. What do you do for fun outside the lab? Extreme cliff diving? Extreme boxing against polar bears? Extreme stamp collecting? 

Vandenbroucke: Yes, aren’t we an extreme bunch of people? I like crazy cooking, extreme traveling, heavy dancing, powerful singing (the last two mostly with my lab partners), and actually, doing all that in a normal fashion as well.

Man: Thank you so much, Annelinde, for doing this interview! It's such a great benefit for the more junior student members of the ASSC to get to know the more senior student members. Final question: What does the ASSC mean to you? What has it done for you? Any suggestions for improvements? 

Vandenbroucke: What I like best about ASSC is that the atmosphere is so open and relaxed. The annual meetings have always inspired me a lot and I’ve met many interesting people. If you have the opportunity to go to an ASSC meeting, do it! Sometimes I feel that with societies (and that counts for all societies I know, not only ASSC), the journal could perhaps be incorporated more. For example, give a short overview of much read papers in the newsletter, or link the Meetings with the Journal somehow.

Annelinde Vandenbroucke is a Ph.D. student at the University of Amsterdam. Her website is at

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