Researcher focusing on attention

Benjamin Cowley works as an associate professor of ‘AI for learning and education’ at the Faculty of Educational Sciences at the University of Helsinki. His way of doing science is fundamentally multidisciplinary.

Bemjamin Cowley is one of the researchers of the Academy of Finland-funded Mind and Matter profiling package, which brings together top-level researchers to tackle research problems and provide a radically new understanding of intelligence, consciousness and information.

Cowley’s research focuses on high-performance cognition.

“As a researcher I am a multidisciplinary PI working in computational cognitive science of high performance and learning,” he says.

Benjamin Cowley has a strong background in computer science. He did his PhD in Northern Ireland, Ulster, and focused on player modelling. The change in research field happened when he moved to Finland to work in Niklas Ravaja’s lab (Aalto University) for his postdoc, focusing on the psychophysiology of learning.

“I’ve always been interested in the human perspective. Even though methodologically I’m working with computational science, I have a human-focused interest.”

“Before I started my own group, I travelled through disciplines from psychology to cognitive science and behavioral science, looking at attention and the cognitive neuroscience of attention.”

Initial interest: Human cognition

Cowley says that his initial academic interest was in human cognition and inferential intelligence. For example, the question: “How do we see a tree?” is a metaphor for how we perceive mathematically well-founded concepts in the world around us, and then infer something about them, like how aesthetic, healthy, or ‘well-grown’ is that tree.

This conceptually philosophical question is an inspiration, but methodologically Cowley’s focus is on a more performance- and task-oriented view. How does a person perform a task and understand the requirements?

In recent years, Cowley has also been inspired by Karl Friston’s ‘Bayesian Brain’ and related theories – it gives a well-defined and integrated way to understand common concepts like ‘attention’, that are otherwise amorphous when you start to dig into them. Cowley aims to use the theory for his own research when bringing together the conceptual and empirical work.

Lab solves questions about polar opposites of attention: Flow and ADHD

Cowley’s lab works primarily with empirical and experimental data. Cowley has long focused on the experience of flow when performing tasks, as a self-reported proxy for high performance cognition.

The lab has also been studying neuropsychiatric health-related topics, primarily ADHD, where the aim is to study how learning and inference might be impaired by deficits in the neural mechanisms of attention. 

“We have studied ADHD in adults by recording brain imaging data in increasingly complex computer performance tests. We try to find out, for example, how relational attention differs”, he says.

Fundamentally multidisciplinary

Even though “multidisciplinary” is nowadays a buzzword that is used for having an impact, Cowley says that for him it is the fundamental way of doing things. 

Multidisciplinarity is the desired path and trend, but for him, it is the only way of doing science.

“I don’t aim to be a psychologist or neuroscientist; neither do I use a structure of research that follows computer science. So, I ended up somewhere in the middle anyway,” he says.

Finland – the land of the Moomins

Cowley has settled down in Finland. But why Finland in the beginning?

“The postdoc job fit my ambitions quite well; but I also had a good impression of the country. When I was a teenager, I read Tove Jansson’s novella The Summerbook, and I found it very evocative - and I was just curious about the country,” he says.


Ben Cowley
Why ADHD adults tend to have difficulty in self-organisation

A multidisciplinary research paper from Cowley and his colleagues Jussi Palomäki and Kristiina Juurmaa, published in December 2021, is Reduced power in fronto-parietal theta EEG linked to impaired attention-sampling in adult ADHD.

ADHD is a widely prevalent and disruptive neurodevelopmental disorder, and although it is mainly associated with youth, it also persists into adulthood in a high percentage of cases. Adult ADHD symptoms are heterogeneous and it is important to study on a neural level, to better understand the disorder and improve treatment options.

- Our results suggest that ADHD adults have impaired attention sampling in relational categorisation tasks, which if true, could go toward explaining how they tend to have difficulty in self-organisation, e.g. with planning a schedule.

The initial finding of reduced EEG theta power was made by Juurmaa in her Masters thesis. It was later that Cowley, building on newer neuroscience findings, made the link to rhythmic attention-sampling processes. Then, working with Palomäki, he validated the hypothesis against corroborating behavioural and neural data.

This fundamental result can inform future basic research by offering a target for studies of deep brain areas. The method of analysis (oscillatory electroencephalography) is also directly relevant for translational clinical research since the same techniques are used in neurofeedback treatments for ADHD. The group led by Cowley plans to pursue both these approaches in future work.