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Action selection under threat: the complex control of human defense

Project description

Exploring human defence mechanisms

Under threat, humans immediately perform a wide range of defence actions. As anxiety disorders involve some of these behaviours, it is important to understand mechanisms of action selection under threat. Existing concepts of human defence behaviour derive from rodent research and focus on a small number of large and cross-species action trends. Since this does not explain the complexity of the fundamental action selection mechanisms, the EU-funded ActionContraThreat project will attempt to understand these psychological mechanisms and explain their neural implementation. The project relies on a cognitive-computational approach to systematically specify the space of actions under threat, explore the psychological mechanism that conditions action selection and describe them with computational algorithms that allow quantitative predictions.


Run away, sidestep, duck-and-cover, watch: when under threat, humans immediately choreograph a large repertoire of defensive actions. Understanding action-selection under threat is important for anybody wanting to explain why anxiety disorders imply some of these behaviours in harmless situations. Current concepts of human defensive behaviour are largely derived from rodent research and focus on a small number of broad, cross-species, action tendencies. This is likely to underestimate the complexity of the underlying action-selection mechanisms. This research programme will take decisive steps to understand these psychological mechanisms and elucidate their neural implementation.

To elicit threat-related action in the laboratory, I will use virtual reality computer games with full body motion, and track actions with motion-capture technology. Based on a cognitive-computational framework, I will systematically characterise the space of actions under threat, investigate the psychological mechanisms by which actions are selected in different scenarios, and describe them with computational algorithms that allow quantitative predictions. To independently verify their neural implementation, I will use wearable magnetoencephalography (MEG) in freely moving subjects.

This proposal fills a lacuna between defence system concepts based on rodent research, emotion psychology, and clinical accounts of anxiety disorders. By combining a stringent experimental approach with the formalism of cognitive-computational psychology, it furnishes a unique opportunity to understand the mechanisms of action-selection under threat, and how these are distinct from more general-purpose action-selection systems. Beyond its immediate scope, the proposal has a potential to lead to a better understanding of anxiety disorders, and to pave the way towards improved diagnostics and therapies.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 688 356,45
53113 Bonn

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Nordrhein-Westfalen Köln Bonn, Kreisfreie Stadt
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 688 356,45

Beneficiaries (3)