Former Department Psychology

The former Department of Psychology headed by Professor Wolfgang Prinz had existed since 1990. The department, which was originally situated at the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Munich, moved to Leipzig with the merger of two institutes into the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. The main focus of the department's research was on the relationship between cognition and action.

Research in the Department of Psychology has addressed relationships between cognition and action. The focus of the Department’s agenda was on cognitive processes involved in action planning, action control, and action perception, as well as on interactions between cognition, volition, and action in experimental task contexts. One of the basic theoretical intuitions that guided our research is the claim that cognition, volition, and action are much more intimately linked to each other than traditional theories in these domains tend to believe. Notably, we assume that perception and action (i.e. perceived and intended events) share common representational resources.

One focus of our research has been on action observation and execution matching. Visually perceiving an action may activate corresponding motor programmes in the observer. We address the functional relationships between action perception and action simulation, using paradigms in which observers pay attention to well-known actions that are transiently occluded. How should we understand the difference between action perception and action simulation? What can these experiments tell us about the timeline of action simulation?

We have also investigated concurrent perception and action. In everyday life, neither perception nor action stops while the other occurs. Rather, perception and action occur simultaneously, and they have the capacity to influence each other. One important question is how, and under which conditions, action and perception interfere with each other or facilitate each other. The general principles of action-perception interference/facilitation have been investigated, as well as how these effects are influenced by motor expertise (e.g. typing, playing piano).

Another focal point of our research has been on the relationship between goals and movements. Actions are goal-directed; this feature is what distinguishes actions from “behaviour” or “movement”. We analyzed the role of action goals in different areas. The central question has been how intended action goals influence action selection, action initiation, action execution, and action evaluation. Moreover, we investigated the role of action goals in action observation paradigms: What do we perceive and understand when we see other people acting? Is it just their movements or their full-blown goal-directed actions?

The research unit “Infant Cognition and Action” has investigated the early development of the cognitive mechanisms of action perception and control. The research conducted in our Babylab investigates different aspects of action perception and its interplay with action control. We have used different paradigms and methods like measuring looking time and heart rate to analyse infants’ ability to imitate observed actions.

Task sharing and joint action has been another focal point of our research. We have studied joint task settings in which two or more individuals take care of certain aspects of a common task. Previous research has shown that people take the other agent and his/her aspects of the task into account when working together, suggesting that they co-represent the other’s task. Our research has investigated the underlying cognitive and neural mechanisms of such co-representations. To this end, we have conducted reaction time, EEG, and fMRI experiments using several different tasks and effects that have already been extensively studied in individual task settings.

We are also interested in tool transformations: In tool use, humans have to consider the mapping between the bodily movements they execute and the effects (at the end of the tool or elsewhere in external space) that are produced by these movements. We have investigated mechanisms and processes involved when humans use tools or acquire new mappings between their bodily movements and associated effects in external space. More specific questions concern the mechanisms of movement coordination with transformed feedback, the relationship between language use and tool use, and the mechanisms of switching between everyday tools.

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