Exploiting the human potential
Professor Bernhard Hommel doesn't believe in destiny. After having failed to succeed in becoming an experimental rock singer and a stage actor, he worked as a truck driver for several years before he took up his studies of psychology, literature, and linguistics in Bielefeld, Germany.
First Bernhard Hommel was strongly attracted to social psychology and worked in projects on crowding (the psychological consequences of physical and social density), the efficiency of psychotherapy in prison, and sociological aspects of juvenile delinquency. But then he figured that the topics of this research area are much more exciting than their methods and theories, and so he gravitated towards cognitive psychology and the cognitive neurosciences. One of his most important theoretical contributions is the Theory of Event Coding, a general framework that explains how perception and action are cognitively coded and represented, and that claims, among other things, that all human cognition is grounded in bodily action. In 1999, Hommel moved from the Munich Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research to Leiden University, where he holds the chair for General Psychology.
Hommel is bored by the obsession for paradigmatic, self-contained research in the cognitive sciences and tries to expand his theoretical and methodological horizon wherever possible. Without a decidedly interdisciplinary approach, he says (in an opinion paper appearing in Frontiers of Psychology), psychology will be unable to progress much further. An important vehicle to advance interdisciplinary research in Leiden is the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, which Hommel initiated together with his friends and colleagues Lisa Cheng, a linguist, and Mark van Buchem, a radiologist. The LIBC provides a stimulating platform for scientific exchange and the development of exciting new research project, such as an investigation of the cognitive consequences of migraine with Michel Ferrari, Mark van Buchem and others from the LUMC; a study of “gaydar”—the sixth sense of gay individuals to detect the sexual orientation and other individuals—with Hommel’s wife Lorenza Colzato and Fieke Harinck from Social Psychology; or a project on feature integration in Asperger Syndrome patients with Leo de Sonneville and Hanna Swaab-Barneveld from Educational Sciences. Another exciting project was the symposium “Sleepless in Leiden” (March 18), in which Hommel and the psychiatrist Nic van der Wee (LUMC) brought together speakers from neurophysiology, the cognitive neurosciences, psychology, and philosophy.
Recent research projects are making an attempt to extend Hommel’s theoretical approach to cognitive control and creativity, and to identify means to improve these two abilities. Together with Andre Keizer, who just completed his PhD project and moved to the UvA, Hommel and other colleagues are using neurofeedback (perceptual feedback about one's own brain states) to improve memory processes and cognitive control operations. They were able to show that eight sessions of neurofeedback about the participants’ neural cortical synchronization increased intelligence measures, the retrieval of explicit memories, and the control of implicit episodic bindings. These observations have exciting implications for training programs targeting the enhancement of cognitive abilities, such as in deficient children or elderly participants.
Together with Soghra Akbari, a PhD student from Iran, Hommel investigates the neuromodulatory basis of creativity and tries to identify optimal and suboptimal conditions for divergent and convergent thinking. Among other things, they were able to demonstrate that performance in divergent-thinking tasks varies as a function of individual dopamine level, with medium levels producing the best performance. Positive mood, which often has been assumed to improve creativity, affects different individuals in different ways: it improves creativity in people with low dopamine levels but impairs creativity in people with high dopamine levels.
New challenging projects are waiting. Ongoing research looks into the cognitive representation of, and both hormonal and situational conditions that facilitate social action, and into the representation of the self. Eventually, these activities might set the stage for testing one of Hommel's favorite ideas: that people do not really have personalities but only make them up whenever needed.