the cogito foundation
  Projects 2013   (Last Update: 28.02.2014)

"Embodied (e)motions: brain mechanisms and their socio-cultural modulation"
Prof. Alessio Avenanti, Universita Bologna CHF 60'000.-

Many human emotions are associated with specific physical actions (e.g. happiness -> smile). Humans have a tendency to "copy" physical actions that they observe. This copying can be explicit or remain at the level of cortical activity (in a simplified sense, the brain "thinks" about the physical action but does not execute it).
The applicants suggest that because of the strong association of some physical actions with a given emotion, the simple act of copying (or thinking about) these physical actions can induce the associated emotion in us, and thus would allow us to better interpret ("feel") the emotions of the person that we are copying from.

The proposal has three components:

  1. Analysis of premotor and motor cortical activity in volunteers during as they observe diverse emotional states.
  2. Analysis of the effect of culture/group on motor cortical activity and ability to sense emotions. Previous studies suggest that we can more readily interpret emotions from members of our own group/ethnic race than from other ethnic races. This bias can be reduced by social psychology methods. The applicants propose to see what happens under these conditions at the level of premotor and motor cortex.
  3. The applicants propose to interfere with cortical activity patterns using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), in order to determine whether these activities contribute to the ability to recognize emotions and judge whether they occur in an appropriate social context.

The applicant team includes several groups in Bologna and in Rome with both experimental neuroscientists and social psychologists with a track record of research in this interesting area in cognitive neuroscience. The proposed experiments have the potential to provide additional insight into the importance of explicit/implicit copying of physical activities associated with specific emotions.


"Consequences of hand loss on embodied cognition"
Dr. Tamar R. Makin, University Oxford, Prof. Peter Brugger, University Zurich, CHF 67'487.94

The concept of "embodied cognition" – that our mental faculties are partly determined by the form of the human body – is becoming increasingly popular in the work of philosophers, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and artificial intelligence researchers. In the proposed project we will use questionnaires, behavioural tools and neuroimaging to investigate the neural correlates underlying altered cognition in individuals with one hand. The project will study two populations with a unilateral hand-absence: individuals with congenital developmental deficiencies and acquired amputees (i.e. individuals that lost their hand during adulthood), as well as controls. We will first focus on numerical cognition as a key example of the potential relationship between the body and cognition: using a behavioural paradigm, we will attempt to identify the importance of intact hand representation, during the course of childhood and adulthood, on numerical cognition. Using steady state functional MRI we will also study changes in the neural architecture underlying a range of cognitive functions in individuals with an absent hand, compared with controls. We will attempt to associate these functional changes with distorted embodiment associated with handloss, such as the phenomenology of phantom sensations. The results are expected to advance the understanding of the relationship between embodiment and cognition, with broad potential impact on multiple subdisciplines of the cognitive sciences, and may also bear impact on the rehabilitation of individuals after traumatic loss of a hand.


"Towards an experimental philosophy of aesthetics"
Dr. Florian Cova, Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences, University of Geneva, CHF 189'000.-

Experimental philosophy is a recent trend in philosophy that aims at enriching the philosopher's toolbox by approaching traditional philosophical questions with methods coming from cognitive sciences. Our aim here is to apply this new methodological approach to the field of aesthetics.

We will show how empirical methods can illuminate three different philosophical puzzles:

  1. The relationship between morality and exposure to artworks: is it true, as many philosophers seem to think, that a better engagement with beauty can improve our life as moral persons? This will be investigated by testing whether prior exposure to 'moving' films and music makes people more altruistic and less selfish.
  2. The nature of the emotion we feel for fictional characters: how can we feel emotions for characters that do not exist? A widespread approach in aesthetics answers this question by denying that we feel emotions for fictional characters: we only feel quasi-emotions. We will investigate the empirical adequacy of this answer by testing to which extent emotional reactions to a film differ in nature and intensity depending on whether participants believe it to refer to a real situation or not.
  3. The nature of aesthetic judgment: are judgments about beauty different from mere statements of preference? Most philosophers think they are, based on the observation that people claim some sort of universal validity for their aesthetic judgments. However, some have put this observation to doubt. Our goal here will be to empirically investigate the way people conceptualize their own aesthetic judgments and engage in aesthetic disputes.

"Western and Maya concepts of cancer and chronic, non-infectious, pervasive diseases A transdisciplinary approach for comparative diagnosis and Maya patient's treatment description"
Dr. Pius Krütli, Monica Berger, Martin Hitziger, Natural and Social Science ETHZ, CHF 50'000.-

The first phase of the MACOCC project set the methodological standards of our research with five Maya Councils of Guatemala (Kiche', Kaqchikel, Mam, Mopan and Q'eqchi'), aiming to describe their concept of cancer. In this project we now intend to correlate these anthropological investigations to biomedical research by focusing on the Maya diagnosis and treatment of chronic, pervasive, non-infectious diseases and cancer.

The major objectives are

  1. to obtain validated biomedical diagnoses of 20-30 Maya patients from three ethno-linguistic groups affected by emically-defined chronic, non-infectious, pervasive illnesses,
  2. to complete the biomedical diagnoses of identified Maya "cancer" patients to obtain 5–10 pathologically confirmed cancer cases among Maya patients.

With support from the Cancer Institute of Guatemala (INCAN) and other local partners, patients being treated by Maya doctors will be brought for determining the equivalent disease in modern biomedicine, later following a thorough documentation and reconstruction of their particular treatment regimes in Maya medicine.
We follow a transdisciplinary process to facilitate putting into relation modern biomedical analysis and maya traditional medical explanations and applications.



"The U-Gen project: can musicians contribute to the diffusion of scientific knowledge?"
Dr. Lydie Lane, SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, Genf, CHF 15'500.-

Although the thread of a "genetically engineered future" has become a frequent subject of philosophical debates, the meaning of the words "cloning", "DNA", "genome" is still unclear for a majority of non-scientists. This project is a practical tentative to use a contemporary music creation to bridge this gap. It is articulated around the creation of a string quartet to illustrate the complexity of human genetic information, which will be composed by Olivier Calmel, a young French composer.

The premiere will be performed on June 25th 2014 in Geneva by Abdel Hamid el Shwekh, Sidonie Bougamont (violins, orchestra soloists from the OSR-Orchestre de la Suisse Romande), Galina Favereau (viola) and Alain Doury (cello). The concert will be preceded by a conference by Professor Amos Bairoch, an outstanding scientist expert in human genes and proteins, and followed by a round table, where musicians and scientists will share their experience with the public. The quartet will be played a second time on June 30th 2014 in an auditorium of the University of Geneva to a public exclusively composed of scientists. Through a questionnaire, we will get feedback from all the actors of the project and the audience. Answers should allow to adjust and generalize the concept of using contemporary music for scientific popularization purposes.

The music scores of the musical piece created in the frame of this project will be published, and can be re-used for other scientific or cultural events.