Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Life Sciences - Department of Psychology

Research projects

„Through the lens of affective knowledge: A cross-national study on the perception of facial expressions“


  • since November 2013
  • PIs Berlin: Prof. Dr. Rasha Abdel Rahman, Dr. Franziska Süß
  • PIs Jerusalem: Dr. Hillel Aviezer, Dr. Ran Hillel
  • project funding by the Hebrew University – Humboldt-Universität Cooperation Call 2013


Human faces and the information derived from emotional facial expressions play a critical role in human social interactions. According to most theoretical accounts expressions are viewed as invariant manifestations of specific emotional states (e.g., anger, happiness, disgust etc.). Accordingly, extensive research has been dedicated to identifying the general neuro-cognitive basis of invariant expression perception, and very little is known about flexible and variable aspects.

The proposed research will investigate such variable aspects by testing whether expression perception can be modulated by the emotional valence of our biographical knowledge about a person. Specifically, we ask whether positive or negative biographical information (e.g., perceiving the face of a person known or presumed to be a murderer or a

philanthropist) shapes how we see his or her facial expression. To gain insight into the temporal dynamics of the affective knowledge effects, and to localize these at perceptual or post-perceptual evaluative processing stages, the electroencephalogram will be co-registered in Berlin and eye movements will be recorded in Jerusalem.

Effects of visually opaque affective information would suggest that facial expressions cannot be viewed independently of our knowledge about the person we see, may this knowledge be correct or false, biased or unbiased. This would have implications not only for expression perception but also for social interactions.


The project is conducted in cooperation with the Hebrew-University of Jerusalem, Israel.



Einsicht: Neurowissenschaftliche Untersuchungen des Einflusses von Wissen auf Wahrnehmung und Bewusstsein


  • seit Mai 2012
  • Leitung: Prof. Dr. Rasha Abdel Rahman
  • Projektmitglieder: Milena Rabovsky
  • Förderung durch die Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)


Traditionellen Modellannahmen zufolge findet der Zugriff auf semantische Wissensinhalte zu einem vergleichsweise späten Zeitpunkt nach der abgeschlossenen perzeptuellen Analyse statt und hat auf diese keinen Einfluss. Aktuelle Befunde weisen jedoch darauf hin, dass die in unserem Gedächtnis gespeicherten Wissensstrukturen einen sogar beträchtlichen Einfluss auf elementare perzeptuelle Leistungen haben können. Je nach Art des Wissens und der betroffenen bewussten oder unbewussten perzeptuellen Prozesse kann dies erhebliche Konsequenzen für die Wahrnehmung und Beurteilung unserer Umwelt, aber auch für unser Verhalten und unsere sozialen Interaktionen haben. Die Erforschung dieses bislang wenig untersuchten Wechselspiels zwischen Wissen, Wahrnehmung und visuellem Bewusstsein steht im Zentrum dieses Projekts. Mit neurowissenschaftlichen Methoden sollen die Einflüsse semantisch-funktionalen, affektiven und sprachlichen Wissens untersucht und verglichen werden. Insgesamt könnte dieses Projekt interessante Informationen darüber liefern, wie Wissen, aber auch vermeintliches Wissen und Vorurteile die (bewusste) Wahrnehmung von Personen und Gegenständen in unserer Umgebung prägt.



Dynamic and flexible aspects of language production


  • Since 2008
  • PI: Prof. Dr. Rasha Abdel Rahman
  • Supported by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)


Semantic interference effects in the picture–word interference (PWI) paradigm have long been assumed to reflect competitive mechanisms during lexical selection, a core component of the speech production system. However, recent observations of facilitative effects have cast doubt on the existence of lexical competition. The aim of this project is to test an alternative account for semantic interference and facilitation effects in terms of lexical cohort activation that can account for a variety of divergent findings. A series of experiments tests whether manipulations of lexical cohort activation can induce semantic interference effects. A major focus of the project is the investigation of flexible and dynamic aspects of language production via situation-specific formations of lexical cohorts.


How miracles really work: Minimally counterintuitive concepts in the context of emotion and styles of speech

Ample evidence suggests that our semantic system, entailing knowledge about concepts, their semantic attributes and relations, is organized along well-defined taxonomic and categorical structures. Yet, many culturally successful concepts, for instance, concepts entailed in fairy tales or myths, violate the clear structures of the semantic system, i.e., zombies (acting dead), ghosts (bodiless agents) or speaking animals. Such minimally counterintuitive elements (MCIs) may be the basis for the success of these concepts. Culturally successful MCIs are often characterized by their emotional value and are communicated in specific styles of language, for instance, in fairy tales. The project investigates the cognitive and neural mechanisms of minimally counter-intuitive concepts by means of behavioural, electrophysiological and imaging techniques, and computational modelling

Semantic expertise in the identification and naming of persons and objects (completed)


  • since December 2004
  • PI: Dr. Rasha Abdel Rahman
  • Supported by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)


Among the most fundamental human skills required in every-day social interactions are the abilities to recognize familiar faces and objects and the capability of fluent speech production. However, although the retrieval of stored semantic information is a vital aspect of both, person / object identification and speech production, little is known about the influence of semantic expertise on these processes: Does an increasing amount of knowledge about a familiar person or object facilitate or hamper naming? Is the retrieval of specific semantic information modulated by semantic expertise? The project investigates the influence of semantic expertise on behavioural, electrophysiological and neural correlates of these processes.