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Catherine Hartley

New York University

Associate Professor
University of Oxford
Department of Psychology
United Kingdom

Psychology, Stanford University, 2013
PhD, Psychology, New York University, 2011
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Research focus
The overarching goal of my work is to understand the normative developmental changes in brain dynamics and cognitive processes that underpin our actions and choices, as well as the specific factors that facilitate or constrain behavioral flexibility at various stages of development. Collectively, my program of research pursues answers to the following broad questions: What changing cognitive representations and computations inform learning and decision-making across development? How do dynamic changes in brain circuits give rise to these functions? How does variation in real-world experience and its developmental timing influence the individual tuning and plasticity of learning and decision-making? How do specific learning and decision-making biases contribute to psychiatric vulnerability or resilience? My lab has several ongoing lines of work that probe these questions.

What have I achieved during my fellowship?
During the fellowship period, I focused on two central lines of research. The first examined the neural and cognitive development of goal-directed learning – or the ability to take intentional action using task structure knowledge to bring about benefical outcomes. Across multiple studies, our work has identified developmental dissociations in which younger individuals show evidence of having learned the abstract structure of a task, but do not use this knowledge to guide their actions and choices. We are now probing the cognitive and neural mechanisms that give rise to such developmental dissociations in order to better understand how, and in what contexts, children and adolescents come to rely on goal-directed learning.

A second line of research focused on understanding how inferences about the controllability of the environment influences cognitive processes and action selection across development. Our work has shown that revealed age-related improvements in the ability to detect environmental controllability, and nonlinear shifts in the extent to which environmental controllability modulates action selection. We hope to extend this work beyond the lab to test our hypothesis that control over real-world environmental stressors and rewards may be a critical factor promoting the typical development of goal-directed cognition and emotional resilience.

Beyond these focal lines of research, our lab cultivated new research directions during the fellowship period, examining developmental changes in causal learning, goal-directed memory prioritization, and real-world exploratory behavior, and examining how age-related changes in learning, memory, and decision making processes may modulate vulnerability to mental illness across adolescence.

My plans for the future
Going forward, we plan to continue our central lines of research examining the neural and cognitive development of goal-directed learning, and how experiences of control shape learning and decision-making development, as well as new lines of research examining how developmental change in reinforcement learning computations and their interactions with memory systems may relate to psychiatric symptomatology across adolescence. We also plan to extend our burgeoning work characterizing how cognition and behavior are influenced by an individual’s environment. A central theoretical premise of our research is that experienced environmental statistics (e.g., environmental novelty, or the abundance, volatility, or controllability of positive or negative reinforcers) “tailor” the control of behavior to an individual’s environment by influencing trajectories of neurocognitive development. In future research, we plan to obtain metrics of a broader set of real-world statistics in order to resolve more clearly how environmental factors relate to individual differences in neurocognitive functioning and drive experience-dependent developmental change. 

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