The Department of Cognitive Neuropsychology

An overall goal of the Department of Cognitive Neuropsychology is to increase our understanding of the neural mechanisms that underpin human expertise, skill learning and creativity. In most of this work, we use music as a model domain. This choice is, first and foremost, motivated by an interest in music itself and its biological foundations. Music is one of the major art forms, and is present in some form in all known human cultures. The neuropsychology of music has in recent decades grown to become one of the most dynamic subfields within the cognitive sciences.


Apart from its intrinsic interest, however, music has also proved very useful as a tool, or window, through which we can study questions of broad relevance for cognitive neuropsychology. Engaging in music – whether as performers, listeners or creators - requires a stunningly complex interaction between numerous brain systems, which are involved in functions ranging from multisensory perception and motor coordination, to emotional processing and social interaction. Acquiring new musical skills, in turn, places extraordinary demands on neural plasticity, and the brain networks involved in learning and memory. Studying musicians and musical tasks can therefore provide important new knowledge not only about the musical brain as such, but also about fundamental principles for the neural control of behavior in general.

Finally, investigating musical engagement, its causes and consequences, is relevant from an applied perspective. Participating in musical activities, alone or together with others, may have effects on other things than our musical competence. In that context, we are particularly interested in the phenomenon of transfer, i.e. the potential beneficial side-effects of musical training on non-musical skills and competences, as well as in the associations between cultural engagement, psychological wellbeing and health.

Methodologically, we employ a combination of techniques from experimental and differential psychology, behavior genetics, and structural and functional neuroimaging. This reflects our belief in the importance of integrating analyses at different levels, from the behavioral to the neurobiological, as well as that fact that we are equally interested in general mechanisms and processes that apply to all humans, and the neuropsychological basis of individual differences. Individual differences are the consequence of a complex interaction between genes and environment, and we believe that important insights about variation in musical behaviors can be gained by analyzing gene-environment interplay using the tools of behavior genetics. In principle, we are convinced that an understanding of how and why humans make music requires a truly interdisciplinary milieu, where empirical scientists can interact tightly with scholars in relevant disciplines from the humanities, as well as performing artists. 


How a Team of Researchers Is Tracking Down Feelings With the Help of Dance Choreographies and a Specially Developed Software


“Tell me if you dance and I will tell you who you are!”



Max-Planck-Institut für empirische Ästhetik, ArtLab

Human+AI Real-Time Improvisation [more]

Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics ArtLab

The fourth concert in the "Ligeti 100" series with Fredrik Ullén [more]

Research Areas

Acquisition of musical expertise – gene-environment interplay and neural mechanisms

Reaching a high level of skill within a domain, such as music, requires long periods of intense practice. However, research during the last decade has demonstrated that the acquisition of expertise is a complex process that depends on an interaction between practice and many other factors, which include traits of the individual as well as environmental variables. To increase our understanding of musical expertise and its neuropsychological underpinnings is a major research goal of our department. We are particularly interested in how the acquisition of expertise depends on an interplay between genetic and environmental factors.

The cognitive neuropsychology of musical improvisation

Musical improvisation has turned out to be a highly useful model task in studies of creative cognition, by which we can study neural mechanisms controlling online generation of new, meaningful materials, using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Specific questions that we work on in this research include the functional roles of different brain regions for spontaneous music creation, the neural implementation of different improvisational strategies, and the effects on the brain of long-term musical training specifically in improvisation.

Cultural engagement, psychological well-being and health

A comprehensive research literature provides indications that cultural activities, and interventions with cultural ingredients, may have beneficial effects on well-being in a  number of clinical conditions, such as pain, anxiety, and depression. At the same, large scale studies provide convincing evidence for that genetic factors implied in artistic creativity are also related to a higher risk for certain psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Relations between artistic engagement and psychological health are thus complex. In this research project, we study the nature of the associations between cultural engagement, psychological well-being and health closer, using large, genetically informative cohorts, which provide excellent possibilities to analyze causal mechanisms, and disentangle genetic effects from non-genetic influences.

Brain representation of musical skills

Musical skills, such as playing a melody on a piano or some other musical instrument, have distributed representations in the brain, which involve both sensory and motor brain regions. There are many unresolved questions around how various properties of musical structures, such as their rhythm, melody, and expressive qualities, are represented and controlled by the brain. We study these problems using functional magnetic resonance imaging and state-of-the-art multivariate analyses of patterns of neural activity.

Individual differences in musical engagement

Humans differ widely in how much time and resources they invest in musical activities. Some individuals spend a lot of time practicing and performing music actively, and become amateur or professional musicians. Most people are not active performers, but are satisfied with enjoying music as listeners. At the other end of the spectrum we find people who do not find music rewarding, and spend little, if any, time on musical activities. Moreover, among musical-lovers we see interesting differences in preferences when it comes to styles, instruments and genres. We are interested in understanding the psychological and biological factors that underlie this conspicuous variability, and how it relates to other variables of interest, such as traits of the individual, environmental factors and level of musical expertise.

Creative achievement

Just as expertise, creative achievement is a complex phenomenon that involves an interplay between the individual and the environment. The goal of this research line is to analyze how creative achievement in a particular domain is related to individual traits, genetic and environmental factors. Our primary focus is achievement in music, but we are also interested in artistic and scientific creativity more broadly. In order to cover a broad range of achievement, we combine psychological investigations in groups of high-achieving experts, with analyses of gene-environment interplay in large twin samples.