May Lab of the Month: Exploring the mysteries of the mind with the Psychophysics and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab

To better understand how the brain processes information, Dr. Lawrence Ward and the members of the Psychophysics and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab are using advanced methods of electroencephalography (EEG) to measure people’s brainwaves. The research conducted in the lab addresses broad questions across the areas of consciousness, memory, reading, and mind wandering.

Imaging the brain
Typically, fMRI scans are used to discover the function of brain regions but the lab prefers EEG to explore how the brain creates perception and cognition. Ward, professor of psychology at UBC and director of the lab, says that with EEG “the brain sends information within networks of brain regions at a fast rate over tens to hundreds of milliseconds.”

Dr. Ward prefers EEG, a test that measures and records the electrical activity of the brain through electrodes that are placed on the scalp, because “we can infer from scalp recordings precisely when–and to an approximation where–activity and information transfer are going on, in support of the cognitive functions we are engaging in experiments.”

The lab’s use of advanced techniques of EEG data analysis sets the lab’s research apart from other cognitive neuroscience labs. These techniques are difficult to learn and apply to EEG data and, as a result, they are used by relatively few researchers. “There is little consensus on how to do this,” says Ward. “We are helping to develop the methods as we use them–to better understand brain function in cognition.”

Yana Pertels with a 64-channel electrode cap and impedance meter.

Mapping the mind
People participating in one of the lab’s experiments can expect to be fitted with a cap to position the recording electrodes on their head. After a fit is made, each electrode cup is filled with a gel that conducts the tiny electrical potentials at the scalp generated by activity from the brain sources inside the head. For example, the medial temporal lobe is active during a person’s spontaneous thought and the EEG electrodes are sensitive to some of this activity. The electrodes are connected to a computer where the brain’s electrical activity is recorded.

If participants are worried about any pain the electrical recording will cause, they don’t need to. This is a non-invasive technique and most participants report feeling nothing. Participants are always in full control and can stop the recording at any time. If they are concerned about conductive gel in their hair, the lab is also equipped with a sink, shampoo, conditioner, towels, blow dryer–and even an old barber chair.

The research projects underway in the lab range from exploring techniques for non-verbal communication with end-of life patients, to studying the brain networks in normal readers and dyslexic individuals, to mind wandering in meditators and in non-meditators.

Journey into the mind
Ward originally wanted to be a physicist. After high school, he received a scholarship and went to Harvard University to pursue physics as an undergraduate student. It was there that his journey as a cognitive neuroscientist began.

“I realized everyone was ahead of me and I got discouraged,” says Ward. “I was taking math, physics and chemistry–but not the advanced courses–and I felt I wouldn’t be able to get a PhD in those areas. So I moved sideways into biology and then psychology, anthropology, and sociology.”

This decision was life-changing as Ward became a research assistant for Amos Tversky, one of the world’s leading experts in judgment and human decision making. Tversky convinced Ward that he could do mathematical psychology. After receiving his BA with honours from Harvard, Ward went Duke University for graduate studies in the social psychology program. Ward was interested in mathematical social psychology–a relatively unknown field then–but this idea was discouraged by the social psychologists at Duke.

Instead of being put off, Ward caught the psychophysics bug after taking a psychophysics class. “I was turned on to psychophysics as it’s mathematical and physical–and I was minoring in math. I felt this was the field for me.”

After receiving his PhD in experimental psychology with a minor in mathematics, Ward began his career in 1970 as an assistant professor at Rutgers University. In 1974 he accepted a position at UBC and concentrated on psychophysics until the mid-nineties, when one of his graduate students convinced Ward to purchase a 16 channel EEG. His interest in using EEG to study the mind grew, along with his interest in cognitive neuroscience. This brings us to today.

Current state of mind
Eric Laycock, the lab’s administrator, met Ward as a first-year undergraduate student and attended his COGS401 seminar class. Laycock first developed an interest in cognitive neuroscience after working in a neurobiology lab; an interest that quickly turned into a passion. His research explores the relationship between visual cues, illusions and conscious perception.

“The lab has a unique method of analyzing the EEG data, allowing us to go beyond what many past EEG studies were able to measure,” says Laycock. “But the soul of the lab, Lawrence, is the most unique aspect of the lab. Unlike most other neuroscientists’ theories about how the brain gives rise to consciousness, Lawrence believes that consciousness mainly stems from the center of the brain. He calls this the thalamic dynamic core theory.”

The camaraderie in the lab is evident. The lab members easily launch into conversations that cross many thresholds including philosophy, ethics, new technologies, optical illusions, locked-in syndrome, the television series Dr. House—just to name a few. All members of the lab share the same quest to discover how the brain works.

Below is a snapshot of the research projects underway in the lab:

Nicolas Bedo, a graduate student in the cognitive area, is studying the differences between normal readers and dyslexic individuals in the function of the brain networks involved in reading. He has completed several experiments on children, and has studied the effects of an intervention for dyslexic readers on how their reading networks function.

Elizabeth Blundon, a graduate student in the cognitive area, is testing techniques for discerning whether patients who cannot communicate overtly nonetheless are conscious and can communicate by changing their brain activity on command. She is working with end-of-life patients at St. John’s Hospice.

Xiaolei Deng, a graduate student in the clinical area (on leave), is planning a research project on perfectionism using EEG and the error-related negativity; an EEG component that is elicited when someone makes a mistake.

Jonathan deVries, an interdisciplinary graduate student co-supervised  by Ward, is doing a project on how to validly infer the direction of information transfer from activations of specific neural regions over time.

Manesh Girn, an undergraduate student, is working with Eric Laycock on the research project that is studying mind wandering, both in meditators and in people who are experiencing tDCS.

Eric Laycock, lab administrator and undergraduate student, is researching mind wandering, both in meditators and in non-meditators who have been given tDCS. He also is finishing up a project on the neural correlates of perceptual awareness begun by Nick Bedo on what happens in the brain when a visual stimulus disappears but is nonetheless still present on the retina.

Dr. Shannon MacLean, research associate and an audiologist who owns The Hearing House in Sechelt, is beginning a project on brain training for hearing aid use. She will use EEG to infer how the brain networks underlying hearing are changed by specific training.

Sam Rumak, a graduate student in the clinical area, is studying the effects of long-term cannabis use on short-term memory brain networks.

The lab also has a number of volunteer research assistants who assist a number of projects including Carolina Daffara, Bridget Gallagher, Yana Pertels, and Kallie Hu.

Contact the lab if you are interested in participating in an experiment or joining the lab’s research team:

Email: Wardlab [at]
Phone: 604-822-5488