MindTravel: Modes of brain functioning in complex dynamic environments

The brain is continuously bombarded with a large number of sensory signals and can store a huge amount of information. Nonetheless, – at any one moment – we can gain conscious access only to a limited amount this information. This project investigated the physiological mechanisms that allow us to select the subset of currently relevant signals and to integrate relevant information between the past (memories), the present (sensory input) and the future (prospective goals). Using functional imaging in humans and new data analysis methods, we tracked these processes within complex, dynamic and multisensory environments that entail a coherent flow of information between the past, the present and the future, as would naturally happen in everyday life.

The results highlighted the central role of the parietal cortex in the selection and the integration of complex and naturalistic signals. The parietal cortex was found to combine sensory information from the external world with signals associated with internally-stored memories, as well as information concerning future plans and goals. This attention control system operates together with other brain structures, including the medial temporal lobe that engage when a-priori knowledge about the layout of natural scenes contributes to the integration and selection processes and anterior frontal areas that participate to the formation and retrieval of delayed intentions.

These findings suggest that conscious mental life can be understood as a combination of processes related to the selection and integration of currently relevant information about the past, the present and the future, and that the parietal cortex plays “a director role” in this.

The project has been funded with an ERC Starting-Grant (n.242809) to Emiliano Macaluso, 2010-2015

The main scientific activities of the project can be categorized in three domains:

  1. Hardware: development of new hardware for the presentation of complex and dynamic 3D-visual surround-audio stimuli during fMRI, and eye-tracking with this setup
  2. Software: development of new software for the analysis of complex and dynamic and multisensory stimuli, and of new analyses methods for BOLD data associated with these complex stimuli (mt_tools)
  3. Neuroimaging: identification of physiological mechanisms related to the processing of on-line sensory signals (present), the encoding and retrieval from memory (past) and the formation of expectations (future)