Posts classified under: Psychology

Idan Blank, Ph.D.

Research and Teaching Interests:

I study how we understand language—a phenomenon that is universal across human cultures, yet unique to our species, and allows us to transmit thoughts from one mind to another. What are the component processes of comprehension? What kind of mental structures allow us to “know the meaning” of an utterance? Which distinctions in meaning do these structures make more/less salient? And what mental operations are used to manipulate them?

To understand how comprehension evolves in our minds, I study how it engages our brains: which aspects of comprehension get their own dedicated neural real estate? Which are inseparable, supported by a joint mechanism? And which rely on circuits that serve many domains beyond language? Using neuroimaging (mostly functional MRI), tools from network neuroscience, and a combination of hypothesis- and data-driven approaches, I characterize the functional regions engaged when adult native speakers understand language: their internal organization and relationship to one another (dissociable vs. tightly linked); the division of “mental labor” and the integration of information across them; and the ways they change following brain injuries.

I also use computational methods to evaluate meaning representations that are generated by algorithms trained on natural texts. I examine what knowledge—about words, their combinations, and the underlying concepts—is captured by these representations, and compare it against behavioral benchmarks. I test which features of the linguistic input are minimally required for machines to extract this knowledge.


Idan A. Blank will join UCLA as an Assistant Professor of Psychology in July 2019. He received his PhD (2016) in Cognitive Science from MIT, working with Nancy Kanwisher and Ev Fedorenko, and continued working with Ev as a postdoctoral associate at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Prior to that, he studied mathematics, psychology, and theatre arts in the Lautman Interdisciplinary Program at Tel-Aviv University, where he received his MA (2011) working with Galit Yovel.

Idan Blank’s Curriculum Vitae

Representative Publications:

Mineroff, Z.*, Blank, I.A.*, Mahowald, K., & Fedorenko, E. (2018) A robust dissociation among the language, multiple demand, and default mode networks: evidence from inter-region correlations in effect size. Neuropsychologia, 119, 501-511. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2018.09.011

Blank, I.A., Kiran, S., & Fedorenko, E. (2017). Can neuroimaging help aphasia researchers? Addressing generalizability, variability, and interpretability. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 34(6), 377-393. DOI: 10.1080/02643294.2017.1402756

Blank, I.A. & Fedorenko, E. (2017) Domain-general brain regions do not track linguistic input as closely as language-selective regions. Journal of Neuroscience, 37(41), 9999–10011. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3642-16.2017

Blank, I., Balewski, Z., Mahowald, K. & Fedorenko, E. (2016). Syntactic processing is distributed across the language system. Neuroimage, 127, 307-323. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.11.069

Blank, I., Kanwisher, N. & Fedorenko, E. (2014). A functional dissociation between language and multiple demand regions revealed in patterns of BOLD fluctuations. Journal of Neurophysiology, 112(5): 1105-1118. DOI: 10.1152/jn.00884.2013

Grand, G.*, Blank, I.A.*, Pereira, F., & Fedorenko, E. (submitted) Semantic projection: recovering human knowledge of multiple, distinct object features from word-embeddings. arXiv:1802.01241


Andrew Wikenheiser, Ph.D.


Our lab studies how neural representations support behaviors like decision making. We approach this question by recording the electrical activity of neurons as rats perform behavioral tasks. Electrophysiological techniques are augmented with optogenetics and computational analyses. Current projects are exploring how interactions between the hippocampus and the orbitofrontal cortex support decision making, the encoding of spatial goals, and the formation of neural representations for abstract stimulus spaces.


A selected list of publications:

Wikenheiser Andrew M, Marrero-Garcia Yasmin, Schoenbaum Geoffrey   Suppression of Ventral Hippocampal Output Impairs Integrated Orbitofrontal Encoding of Task Structure Neuron, 2017; 95(5): 1197-1207.e3.
Langdon Angela J, Wikenheiser Andrew M, Schoenbaum Geoffrey   Rat mPFC and M2 Play a Waiting Game (at Different Timescales) Neuron, 2017; 94(4): 700-702.
Sadacca Brian F, Wikenheiser Andrew M, Schoenbaum Geoffrey   Toward a theoretical role for tonic norepinephrine in the orbitofrontal cortex in facilitating flexible learning Neuroscience, 2017; 345(4): 124-129.
Wikenheiser Andrew M, Schoenbaum Geoffrey   Over the river, through the woods: cognitive maps in the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 2016; 17(8): 513-23.
Sharpe Melissa J, Wikenheiser Andrew M, Niv Yael, Schoenbaum Geoffrey   The State of the Orbitofrontal Cortex Neuron, 2015; 88(6): 1075-1077.
Wikenheiser Andrew M, Redish A David   Decoding the cognitive map: ensemble hippocampal sequences and decision making Current opinion in neurobiology, 2015; 32(6): 8-15.
Wikenheiser Andrew M, Redish A David   Hippocampal theta sequences reflect current goals Nature neuroscience, 2015; 18(2): 289-94.
Wikenheiser Andrew M, Stephens David W, Redish A David   Subjective costs drive overly patient foraging strategies in rats on an intertemporal foraging task Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2013; 110(20): 8308-13.
Wikenheiser Andrew M, Redish A David   The balance of forward and backward hippocampal sequences shifts across behavioral states Hippocampus, 2013; 23(1): 22-9.
Wikenheiser Andrew M, Redish A David   Hippocampal sequences link past, present, and future Trends in cognitive sciences, 2012; 16(7): 361-2.
Wikenheiser Andrew M, Redish A David   Changes in reward contingency modulate the trial-to-trial variability of hippocampal place cells Journal of neurophysiology, 2011; 106(2): 589-98.