Have you ever asked yourself whether pressing the demand button for a pedestrian crossing on a busy intersection makes any difference? Or wondered how you could speed up hearing about the planning permission for your loft conversion? These are everyday examples of causal reasoning – our ability to understand, learn, and think about the causal regularities permeating all aspects of life. The capacity to appraise causal relations arguably is one of the most fundamental aspects of human cognition. It allows us to fashion and use tools, distinguish friends from foes, figure out whether a particular strategy is working, and decide which is the best way to achieve our goals.
Scientists studying causality all face one fundamental problem: Our sensory system is not equipped to perceive causality directly. Instead, people draw causal inferences based on experience and observation. And cognitive psychologists interested in causation investigate how they do so. My research looks at the role of time in causal induction. For example, how can we separate relevant cause-effect pairings from a continuous stream of events happening around us so that we can notice regular patterns? In other words, how do we structure continuous time into meaningful units of analysis? Does it matter whether the effect happens instantaneously after the cause or can we tolerate delays? If so, when do delays matter, and why?
The above section illustrated a bottom-up process: lower-level perceptual experiences such as co-occurrence patterns between events, as well as their temporal and spatial relations to one another serve as input to cognitive processes which result in mental constructs of causality. Interestingly, the relationship between sensory experience and causality appears to be bi-directional: Not only do sensory experiences shape our causal impressions, it turns out that causal impressions also shape our perceptual experiences in a top-down way. A second line of my research investigates the bi-directional relation between the perception of time and space and notions of causality: “Causal Binding” refers to a number of perceptual distortions that occur when we consider the temporal or spatial relations between cause and effect. The amount of time or space that separates two events appears – subjectively – shorter when the events are causally connected. I am investigating the functional and structural underpinnings of this phenomenon and how it relates to our understanding of intentionality and motor planning.