Research

Cognitive control describes the strategic use of a current context to flexibly modulate our responses in line with internal goals. The overarching goal of my research is to examine how memory guides cognitive control—namely, how past experiences and internal goals can shape our responses to demands in our environment, particularly those that require a great deal of attention.

My research broadly falls under three main questions:

1. How does learning inform our understanding of cognitive control?

Psychonomics2017
I earned the 3rd place APA Division 3 Poster Award at Psychonomics 2017.

Do our past experiences inform how we respond to situations that require a lot of attentional focus? For example, people might approach a new situation or environment with a heightened sense of attention, because similar environments have proven difficult in the past. In order for this mechanism to work, people would need to bind together a specific control state (e.g., heightened focus of attention) and their memory of the attentionally demanding environment. In this line of research, I examine how learned contextual cues guide strategic adjustment to attentional demands, showing that people can generalize cognitive strategies across similar contexts, and which brain regions support this type of control-learning. For example publications, see:

  • Bejjani, C., Zhang, Z., and Egner, T. (2018). Control by association: Transfer of implicitly primed attentional states across linked stimuli. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 25(2): 617-626. http://dx.doi.org/10.3758/s13423-018-1445-6
  • Bejjani, C., Zhang, Z., Dolgin, J., and Egner, T. (Preregistered Direction Replication under review at Psychological Science). Disentangling the roles of cue visibility and preparatory knowledge in learning cognitive control.

2. How do we learn to form context-sensitive stimulus-response rules (task-sets) from interacting with our environment, and how does this impact our memory?

HKRZ6202
With a colleague, practicing how to guide the TMS coil using his MRI scan

In this line of work, I investigate the consequences of learned cognitive flexibility on memory. If people learn to link particular stimuli with specific responses (task-sets) across a variety of environments, do they subsequently remember these stimuli less depending on how the task-set was learned? Can we learn to adapt our cognitive flexibility to match changing attentional demands? What brain regions support learned cognitive flexibility? For example publications, see:

  • Sali, A.W., Bejjani, C., and Egner, T. (in prep). Learning cognitive flexibility: Neural mechanisms of adaptive switch readiness.
  • Bejjani, C. and Egner, T. (under review at Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition; preprint available here.). Creating implicit task-sets from categorical stimuli: when structure learning degrades incidental memory.
  • Bejjani, C., Whitehead, P.S., Sali, A.W., Chiu, Y.C., and Egner, T. (preregistered). Causal contributions of parietal cortex to learned switch readiness.

3. How can we apply what we know of cognitive control to improve educational as well as public and mental health outcomes?

CNS2016
I earned a Cognitive Neuroscience Society People’s Choice Poster Award.

Prior to my current research at Duke, I was also involved in learning and motivation research. This research investigated how people performed on attention and learning tasks after having their competence threatened and undergoing a well-validated social stress test. For example, in one study, we examined whether neural responses to learning from negative feedback change if participants believe that intelligence is a fixed vs. malleable trait and if they feel less competent. In another study, we examined whether participants who write about past failures vs. the plot of a recent movie experience less stress and do better on an attention task. I am currently following up with this work by applying this research to educational contexts (i.e., doing research in the classroom). The goal, here, is to understand how people learn so as to inform current educational practices. For example publications, see:

In another line of research under this topic, I examine whether individual differences play a role in mental health outcomes. Cognitive control is thought to be altered in many psychiatric disorders, but few studies have examined these deficits in control on a large-scale individual difference level. I will write more on this topic at a later date.

A tangential paper that I worked on before attending Duke examined whether choosing to exert physical effort impacts neural responses to actual effort expenditure. This research can help inform treatments for depression.

  • Sullivan-Toole, H., Bejjani, C., Richey, J.A., and Tricomi, E. (fMRI draft in preparation for Neuroimage; behavioral draft published at Frontiers in Psychology). The interplay of choice and effort on outcome processing.

Finally, in another line of research under this topic, I examine the real-world consequences of deficits in cognitive control. Multi-tasking is a pervasive public health (and educational) crisis that saps our ability to modulate how we respond to environments in line with our goals. Here, the goal is to apply the research described in Questions 1 and 2 to real-world contexts and test whether research in the lab holds-up in our everyday lives as well as ways that we can mitigate the harmful effects of multi-tasking.

If you have any questions about my research, please feel free to contact me at christina.bejjani AT duke.edu. Thanks so much for visiting!