VUB scientist Senne Braem receives €1.47m ERC Starting Grant

VUB scientist Senne Braem receives €1.47m ERC Starting Grant

for research into cognitive flexibility and autism

In psychology, cognitive flexibility is often opposed to habitual behaviour. Habitual behaviour means we quickly relapse into old patterns of behavior often obtained through simple reward learning. That’s why a change of behaviour or habit is so difficult. Psychologist Senne Braem of the VUB research group Brain, Body, & Cognition now wants to investigate how cognitive flexibility can also be subject to rewards and environmental factors, and can as such also be (re)directed. For this research, he will receive a €1.47 million Starting Grant from the European Research Council.


Cognitive flexibility is our mind’s extraordinary ability to quickly reconfigure our mind and switch between different tasks. Most psychologists agree on what kind of behaviour this term refers to. What drives cognitive flexibility, however, is less well-known.


Senne Braem of the VUB research group Brain, Body, & Cognition will use the CoCoFlex (Conditioning Cognitive Flexibility) project to investigate the brain functions that are responsible for cognitive flexibility. He starts from the idea that cognitive flexibility is based on associative learning, and is therefore sensitive to the same rules as habitual behaviour is. Braem wants to better understand brain and behaviour, and help develop new theories. To this end, he will use simple reaction time tasks to investigate the role of neural variability in allowing us to switch between different tasks. He will also apply these insights to autism research.


With his project, Braem wants to bring about a paradigm shift in the current way of thinking about cognitive flexibility, and cognitive control more generally, as well as the way in which neural mechanisms and deficits in clinical conditions such as autism spectrum disorders are curently assessed.  “A long-term ambition is certainly to help train and steer cognitive flexibility at the workplace or at school, an ability that is considered of increasing importance in this digitial age,” he says. “I also see the application of these paradigms to autism research as a test case, to later explore the potential to extend this to other clinical disorders associated with problems in cognitive flexibility, such as depression, ADHD or OCD.”


Braem will receive the Paul Bertelson Award later this month, presented by the European Society for Cognitive Psychology. This prestigious award is presented every two years to an outstanding young scientist who has made a significant contribution to cognitive psychology in Europe. Bertelson was an internationally recognised cognitive psychologist from Brussels. It’s the first time the award goes to a Belgian.


For more information, contact:

Senne Braem

+32 (0)2 629 14 82

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