Since my pre-college days (circa 1992), I have been investigating the differences in the brain between the unconscious and conscious aspects of human action production (e.g., voluntary action and cognitive conflict, urges, impulse control, working memory).
I was Born in Buenos Aires in 1974 and raised in the US (Miami) since the age of six. I was interested in experimental psychology and what was then called psychobiology since my pre-college days in Miami, when I came across books by Clark Hull and Donald Hebb. Later, I was mentored by Robert B. Tallarico at the University of Miami (B.A., 1996, Phi Beta Kappa, Cum Laude). I received my Ph.D. working with my doctoral advisor, Robert M. Krauss at Columbia University. During this time, I conducted experiments on working memory and mental representation and also worked with the neuropsychologist Michele Miozzo, with whom I investigated models of action/speech production. My dissertation research ("The Motor Components of Semantic Representation") was awarded the Richard Christie Memorial Award. From fall 2003 till fall 2007, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow (NIH NRSA Award) at Yale University, working with my postdoctoral advisor, John Bargh. During this time, I was also mentored by the neuroscientist Jeremy Gray.
Following my postdoctoral training, I was hired as an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at San Francisco State University (where I am director of the Action and Consciousness Laboratory) and as an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco. I am also boardmember of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Institute of Cognitive Neurology (INECO; Buenos Aires). In 2010, I was honored to be nominated along with six other neuroscientists/psychologists for the Virtual Nobel Prize in Psychology (organized by the University of Klagenfurt, Austria). In 2011, I had the honor of serving as an Early Career Reviewer at the Center for Scientific Review of The National Institute of Health (NIH).
My research focuses on the differences between the conscious and unconscious brain circuits underlying human action production. From a systems neuroscience perspective, the research integrates cognitive, neurobiological, and neurological approaches that illuminate the nature of the basic unconscious mechanisms and conscious (e.g., cognitive conflict, urges, working memory) mechanisms in action production. The ultimate aim of my lab is to home in on the subset of basic neural and cognitive mechanisms responsible for conscious states and thereby learn about how the brain yields adaptive action and also maladaptive action, as in the case of some neurological disorders. Investigations at the laboratory tend to fall into three primary research goals: to home in on the (a) neural circuits, (b) cognitive processing, and (c) mental representations associated with conscious states. The research in our lab is untraditional in that we work backwards from overt action to the conscious and unconscious central processes responsible for it, rather than work forward from an external perceptual stimulus to central processing. We use 'response interference paradigms' and the Reflexive Imagery Task to learn about the subjective aspects of action production (e.g., urges) and use 'delayed action tasks' to learn about the subjective aspects of working memory-based action control (e.g., imagery, sense of agency). Investigations at my laboratory tend to fall into three primary research lines.
Line 1: Pre-entry research: Action-related determinants of what enters consciousness. Representative paradigms and topics: reflexive imagery task, refreshing, visual masking, set-induced imagery, and the Sperling task.
Line 2: Post-entry research, including Response Interference Paradigms and Delayed Response Tasks. Representative paradigms and topics: reflexive imagery task, self-control, sense of agency, working-memory-based action control; interference paradigms such as the Stroop and flanker tasks.
Line 3: Actional components of mental representation. Representative paradigms and topics: ideomotor processing, indirect cognitive control, motor components of semantic representation, and folk theories about action production.
In trying to understand the nature of complex nonconscious processes, one eventually encounters the thorny question, "Then what is consciousness for?" I have developed a theoretical framework (Passive Frame Theory) explaining the primary function of conscious states (see my target article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences [in press] and my 2005 Psychological Review article). Early in my career, I had the honor and pleasure of presenting this framework in an invited talk to the Harvard Department of Psychology. For more information about the theory, please visit the Action and Conscious Laboratory web site.
In collaboration with John Bargh, Jeremy Gray, Adam Gazzaley, and Mark Geisler, I am evaluating Passive Frame Theory using behavioral and neuroimaging techniques. In addition, with the assistance of the neurologist Stephen Krieger and colleagues at the UCSF Memory and Aging center, we are examining the implications that Passive Frame Theory and the lab's research have for disorders of awareness and disorders involving action selection (e.g., frontotemporal dementia).
- Morsella, E., Bargh, J. A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2009). Oxford handbook of human action. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Morsella, E. (2005). The function of phenomenal states: Supramodular interaction theory. Psychological Review, 112, 1000-1021.
- Morsella, E., Godwin, C. A., Jantz, T. J., Krieger, S. C., & Gazzaley, A. (in press). Homing in on consciousness in the nervous system: An action-based synthesis. Behavioral and Brain Sciences [Target Article].
Department of Psychology
San Francisco State University
1600 Holloway Avenue, Building EP 301
San Francisco, California 94132-4168
- Phone: (415) 405-2198