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Cognitive Control

Woman with neural cap

Our research group conducts research on one of the most distinguishing characteristics of human behavior - the capacity of cognitive control. Cognitive control orchestrates thoughts and actions in accordance with goals and contexts. It is a fundamental building block of complex, adaptive, flexible and intelligent human behavior. Our research group is devoted to the understanding of: (1) mechanisms of control, (2) the computational principles, neural architecture, and temporal dynamics of control processes, (3) its developmental and aging processes, and (4) its intersection with other cognitive phenomena, such as learning and memory, decision making, attention, and working memory.    

The Cognitive Control Research Group is composed of four main laboratories within the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, led by professors Eliot Hazeltine, Jan Wessel, Jiefeng Jiang, and Kai Hwang. Our group has a proven track record, with significant grant funding and high-impact publications in major journals. Our respective laboratories share a common thematic interest, which together creates a highly collaborative research and training environment. Group members are strongly encouraged to develop projects that span laboratories and advisors. In addition to the labs in Psychological & Brain Sciences and Neurology, there is a rich network of collaboration with other research units across the University of Iowa campus, including Psychiatry, Neurosurgery, and the Iowa Neuroscience Institute. Research group members have full access to research-dedicated 3T and 7T MRI systems, multiple TMS and EEG laboratories, high-performance computing clusters, neurosurgical and neurological patients, and a large lesion patient registry. This unique confluence of resources and intellectual expertise makes our group one of the premier places to perform cutting-edge research on cognitive control in the world.  

We welcome graduate students, postdocs, and research assistants to join our group! We encourage interested candidates to contact one or more of the primary faculty to discuss research interests and opportunities. Graduate students formally apply to one of the two broad graduate training areas (Cognitive or Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience), or through our Individualized Graduate Training Track. Our graduate training is student-centered, with the program of study designed for each student to meet their objectives and to prepare them for the next career stage. Students conduct research from the beginning of their graduate careers and are encouraged to develop independent lines of work as soon as possible. Postdoctoral fellows are supported by faculty research grants, and should directly contact faculty members. Potential full-time research assistants and undergraduate assistants are also encouraged to contact faculty members directly.

Participating faculty and their interests are described below:

  • Eliot Hazeltine: Prof. Hazeltine’s lab studies response selection, the set of processes that transform sensory inputs into goal-directed actions.  To understand how behaviors are guided by the environment and our motivations, his lab examines many phenomena, including cognitive control, dual-task interference, and implicit learning, and to use diverse methods, including traditional behavioral studies, patient studies, functional neuroimaging, and computational modeling.
  • Kai Hwang:  Prof. Hwang’s laboratory conducts research to discover the neural, cognitive, and developmental dynamics of cognitive control. Specifically, we are interested in the neural architecture and dynamic processes that allow brain networks to select, inhibit, transfer, and integrate information for goal-directed behaviors. Together, these mechanisms support many important mental functions during typical and atypical development, such as attention, working memory, response selection, and inhibition. Currently, our studies focus on two broad themes: the thalamocortical system and neural oscillations. We address our research questions with a comprehensive human neuroscience approach, combining multimodal research methodologies, including fMRI, EEG, TMS, lesion studies, eye tracking, and behavioral testing.
  • Jiefeng Jiang:  Prof. Jiang’s lab seeks to understand the cognitive and neural mechanisms that enable goal-directed behavior using a combination of lab- and web-based behavioral studies, functional neuroimaging, computational modeling and virtual reality technology. Specifically, the lab focuses on the fundamental questions about how task-set –– the collection of cognitive control demands required to perform a task –– is learned, stored, retrieved and generalized to new tasks, contexts and experiences in both young and aging populations, with work consisting of three primary research themes: (1) the interaction between task-set mnemonic representation and task-set execution; (2) how age-related changes in goal-directed behavioral relate to altered neural representation of task-sets; and (3) how the changes in task-set representation and execution are related to mental disorders.
  • Jan Wessel: Prof. Wessel’s lab seeks to understand the neural mechanisms underlying the rapidly deployed control of thoughts and actions, with special focus on the computation of surprise-variables across experimental (and real-world) situations, as well as the role of inhibitory control in regulating behavior and thought processes following the detection of surprise. Specifically, Dr. Wessel’s lab aims to understand how the brain uses computationally simple, yet canonical surprise-based variables to detect deviations from the intended outcomes of actions, and then employs well-characterized neural mechanisms to suppress outdated or suboptimal mental or behavioral representations. His lab uses EEG, TMS, ECoG, intracranial depth electrode recordings, fMRI, eye-tracking, neurological patient studies, and many other approaches to answer these questions.
  • Toby Mordkoff: Prof. Mordkoff's lab conducts studies of divided and selective attention with a focus on the way in which subtle, statistical relationships between relevant and irrelevant aspects of the environment have conjoint effects on behavior.  This work involves a mixture of simple and complex experimental designs; the occasional use of event-related brain potentials, muscle activity, and/or response force; and the development of computationally-explicit models of the underlying cognitive and neurological mechanisms.

Faculty in Cognitive Control

  • Eliot Hazeltine

    Eliot Hazeltine


    Cognition and Action, Executive control, Dual-task interference, Bimanual coordination, Motor control

  • Kai Hwang

    Kai Hwang

    Assistant Professor

    Cognitive control; Developmental cognitive neuroscience; Brain network dynamics

  • Jiefeng Jiang

    Jiefeng Jiang

    Assistant Professor

    neurocomputational mechanisms of complex behavior; learning and memory of task structure and cognitive control demand; aging of executive function; computational modeling of cognitive processes; model-based neuroimaging analyis

  • J. Toby Mordkoff

    J. Toby Mordkoff

    Associate Professor

    selective and divided attention, correlational cuing, computational modeling, and psychophysiological measures

  • Isaac Petersen

    Isaac Petersen

    Assistant Professor

    Clinical child psychology, developmental psychopathology, externalizing behavior problems, self-regulation, school readiness, developmental cognitive neuroscience

  • jrw

    Jan Wessel

    Associate Professor (Psychological & Brain Sciences, Neurology)

    Neural mechanisms for flexible behavior and cognition