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Kerstin Unger
Position: Assistant Professor
Campus Affiliation: Queens College
Phone: 718-997-3247
Room Number: SB-A312
Degrees/Diplomas: Ph.D., Saarland University, Saarbrücken, Germany

Area: Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

Society Memberships:
Cognitive Neurosience Society
Society for Neuroscience
Society for Psychophysiological Research

Research Interests:
My research focuses on the question of how developmental changes in (1) attentional control, (2) working memory and rule-guided behavior, and (3) affective-motivational processing contribute to the striking human ability to adapt to novel situations. Appropriate behaviors critically depend on efficient selection of goal-relevant aspects of information out of irrelevant noise. Previous research, however, remains controversial as to whether selective attention works preferably through enhancement of relevant information or also by suppression of irrelevant information. Further, a seemingly simple task like opening a water tap can require entirely different sets of actions depending on the specific context, such as moving the handle up vs. down or turning it to the left vs. right. Rapid identification of appropriate action strategies thus depends on some form of abstraction, such by creating higher-order rule representations that abstract over simpler items-specific rules and can be generalized to novel situations. Another challenge to adaptive behavior regulation arises from the requirement to account for the motivational and affective significance of action outcomes. Consider for example the consequences of confusing the channel up/channel down buttons on a TV remote control vs. confusing gas pedal and brake when you have to stop for pedestrians at a crosswalk.

My work is motivated by the goal to understand the neurocognitive mechanisms supporting these selection and monitoring demands from a lifespan perspective. Specifically, I use behavioral, EEG, fMRI, and computational modeling methods to test the following main hypotheses: (1) flexible, goal-directed attentional mechanisms operate both at early and later stages of visual processing and work through enhancement of relevant information as well as suppression of irrelevant information, (2) developmental improvements in rule-guided behavior from middle childhood through adolescence derive from updating mechanisms in working memory (WM) that are supported by a hierarchically organized corticostriatal gating architecture, and (3) increased influence of affective-motivational processing in adolescence is associated with greater cognitive flexibility and more efficient motivational learning.

Selected publications:
Unger, K., Ackerman, L., Chatham, C. H., Amso, D., & Badre, D. (2016). Working Memory Gating Mechanisms Explain Developmental Change in Rule-Guided Behavior. Cognition, 155, 8-22.

Karbach, J. & Unger, K. (2014). Executive control training from middle childhood to adolescence. Frontiers in Psychology, 5:390.

Unger, K., Greulich, B., & Kray, J. (2014). Trick or treat: The influence of incentives on developmental changes in feedback-based learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 5:968.

Unger, K., Kray, J., & Mecklinger, A. (2012). Worse than feared? Failure induction modulates the electrophysiological signature of error monitoring during subsequent learning. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 12, 34-51.

Bridger, E., Bader, R., Kriukova, O., Unger, K., & Mecklinger A. (2012). The FN400 is functionally distinct from the N400, NeuroImage, 63, 1334-42.