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Professor of Psychology

Ph.D., University of California , San Diego (Neurosciences)
Postdoctoral research, University of California , San Diego (Cognitive Science)
Area: Cognitive and Brain Sciences
Phone: 607-777-5490

Office: Science IV, Room 348

Event-related potential laboratory website


Professional Activities:

Associate editor of Psychophysiology; editorial board member for Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience. Past member of Cognition & Perception, Language & Communication, and Communication Disorders grant review panels for National Institutes of Health. Ad-hoc reviewer for approximately 50 scientific journals and several international funding agencies.

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.

Research Description:

My laboratory has two principal lines of research. In memory, our 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 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). We 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 - like the "cap" in both "captain" and "handicap". In both domains of research, we attempt a thorough analysis of people's behavior, the brain activity that precedes or accompanies that behavior, and how the two are related.

Philosophy of Graduate Training:

Graduate work has to strike a balance between reading, thinking about and absorbing the ideas of other scientists, and producing one's own research. Coursework provides the broad background and a framework for understanding the big picture, but successful scientists are always engaged in reading and thinking. I encourage my students in this habit by dropping journal articles on their desks, and e-mailing them abstracts of both recent and classic work they might find interesting -- but expect that students will soon pursue their own reading programs. Experimental work using neuroscience methods, including event-related potentials, requires considerable skill learning. Students in my lab acquire these skills via one-on-one training and close supervision of initial projects, progressing to more independent laboratory work. Conceptual development of projects follows a similar trajectory: I may suggest an initial project, help students hammer out experiment designs based on their own ideas a little later in their graduate career, and expect that students will take primary intellectual responsibility for their research late in their graduate years. I expect that any study worth doing is worth doing right, and that devoting the effort to doing it right will result in publishable work, so that students assemble a publication record as they acquire a doctoral degree.

Selected Publications:

Patterson, D.K., Van Petten, C., Beeson, P.M., Rapscak, S.Z., & Plante, E. (2014). Bidirectional iterative parcellation of diffusion weighted imaging data: Separating cortical regions connected by the arcuate fasciculus and extreme capsule. Neuroimage, 102, 704-716.

Luka, B. J., & Van Petten, C. (2014). Prospective and retrospective semantic processing: Prediction, time, and relationship strength in event-related potentials. Brain and Language, 135, 115-129.

Luka, B. J., & Van Petten, C. (2014). Gradients versus dichotomies: How strength of semantic context influences event-related potentials and lexical decision times. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 14, 1086-1103.

Van Petten, C. (2014). Selective attention, processing load, and semantics: Insights from human electrophysiology. In G.R.R. Mangun (Ed.), Cognitive Electrophysiology of Attention (pp 236-253). New York: Elsevier.

Van Petten, C. (2014). Examining the N400 semantic context effect item-by-item: Relationship to corpus-based measures of word co-occurrence. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 94, 407-419.

Last Updated: 9/28/17