Jonathan D. Cohen
Human Neuroscience ; Theory and Computation
Human Neuroscience ; Theory and Computation

Robert Bendheim and Lynn Bendheim Thoman Professor in Neuroscience. Professor of Psychology, Co-Director Princeton Neuroscience Institute

Ph.D., Carnegie Mellon University, 1990
MD, University of Pennsylvania, 1983

Research: Focuses on the neurobiological mechanisms underlying cognitive control, and their disturbance in psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression.
Areas of Research: Human Neuroscience; Theory and Computation
jdc@princeton.edu
Research Lab
PDF icon jonathan-cohen-cv.pdf
609-258-2696
240 Neuroscience


WOULD YOU PUSH SOMEONE into an oncoming train if doing so would save the lives of five others down the track? Or would you save the five people by flipping a switch that will kill one person down another track? In a study that combines philosophy and neuroscience, Princeton researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyze brain activity in people who were asked to ponder a range of such moral dilemmas. Co-authors of the paper are Jonathan Cohen and John Darley, both professors of psychology; Joshua Greene, Brian Sommerville, and Leigh Nystrom.

The results, published in Science (September 14, 2001), suggest that answers to such questions often do not grow out of a reasoned application of moral principles, as has been the long-held view. Instead, they draw on emotional reactions, particularly for certain moral dilemmas. In the study, eighteen people answered a battery of 60 personal and non-personal questions while undergoing MRI scanning. The scanning consistently showed a greater level of activation in emotion-related brain areas during the personal moral questions than during the impersonal moral or non-moral questions.

The researchers also measured how long it took subjects to respond to questions. In the few cases in which people said it is appropriate to take action in the personal moral questions -- like pushing a person off the footbridge -- they tended to take longer to make their decisions. This suggests that these individuals were working to overcome a primary emotional response, the researchers concluded.
Cohen notes that the current study "is a nice example of how cognitive neuroscience -- and neuroimaging in particular -- provide an interface between the sciences and the humanities." Full story.


Research Focus

Research in my laboratory focuses on the neurobiological mechanisms underlying cognitive control, and their disturbance in psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression. Cognitive control is the ability to guide attention, thought and action in accord with goals or intentions. One of the fundamental mysteries of neuroscience is how this capacity for coordinated, purposeful behavior arises from the distributed activity of many billions of neurons in the brain. Several decades of cognitive and neuroscientific research have focused on the mechanisms by which control influences processing (e.g., attentional effects in sensory processing, goal directed sequencing of motor output, etc.), and the brain structures upon which these functions depend, such as the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, basal ganglia and brainstem neuromodulatory systems. However, we still have a poor understanding of how these systems give rise to cognitive control. Our work seeks to develop formally explicit hypotheses about the functioning of these systems, and to test these hypotheses in empirical studies. An important motivation for this work is the development of a theoretically sound foundation for research on the relationship between disturbances of brain function and their manifestation as disorders of thought and behavior in psychiatric illness.


Selected Publications

COMPUTATIONAL MODELING OF NEURAL MECHANISMS UNDERLYING COGNITIVE CONTROL:

NEUROIMAGING AND ELECTROPHYSIOLOGICAL STUDIES OF PREFRONTAL CORTEX AND ANTERIOR CINGULATE FUNCTION:

SCHIZOPHRENIA:

REWARD, EMOTION AND DECISION MAKING:

NEURAL NETWORK AND NEUROIMAGING METHODS: