Faculty Profile

headshot of Cyma K. Van Petten

Cyma K. Van Petten


Psychology; Linguistics Program


Van Petten's laboratory has two principal lines of research. In memory, their work is motivated by the fact that performance in real life memory tasks frequently requires more than raw memory ability, but also requires strategic or executive processes: deliberate search for information that does not come immediately to mind, decisions as to whether a memory is reliable enough to act on and resolution of interference between similar memories. Broadly, these executive processes have been associated with the prefrontal cortex. 

Experiments using event-related potential (ERP) measures of human brain activity in healthy participants and those with brain damage are devoted to teasing apart the different brain processes that participate in episodic memory and understanding how they cooperate to yield successful performance (and how incorrect memory judgments arise from bottlenecks in different processes). They also work on the memory changes that occur in normal aging, and their relationship to anatomical changes in the brain. 

Language research investigates how smaller elements are combined to produce larger units with different meanings, with a current focus on two general sorts of problems: 1) how the meanings of individual words are modified by the overall context of a sentence and how people select or build those contextually appropriate meanings, and 2) how listeners segment full words out of the speech stream and avoid semantic processing of spurious units, such as the "cap" in both "captain" and "handicap." In both domains of research, they attempt a thorough analysis of people's behavior, the brain activity that precedes or accompanies that behavior and how the two are related.

Accepting graduate students for Fall 2024.


  • PhD, University of California at San Diego
  • BA, Reed College

Research Interests

  • Language processing focusing on sentence comprehension and the interface between semantic processing and spoken word identification
  • Memory with an emphasis on executive processes that contribute to memory and the role of prefrontal cortex