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To Head or to Heed?

Summer School 2011


Cross-Disciplinary Approaches to Impulsivity and the Inhibition of Thought and Action

Odysseus was curious to hear the Sirens' song, but knew better than to heed to its appeal and therefore had his sailors tie him securely to the mast of his boat. Upon hearing the Sirens' song, he was immediately enchanted by its beauty and promise, and begged the sailors to unleash him, but they couldn't hear him because he had ordered them to plug their ears with wax. This prospective act of cognitive control exemplifies the need to inhibit our immediate impulses, but also stirs interest in what constitutes impulsive behavior. Impulsivity represents one of the core and most debilitating symptoms of a broad range of mental disorders, including eating disorders obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), pathological gambling, attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), substance disorders and behavioral addictions.

We may need to head the call of the Sirens, but not necessarily without heeding to it. Many every-day decisions and actions in fact appear "beyond our control". Such involuntary actions comprise a puzzle for modern neuroscience. Why are we so poorly able to resist to impulses? Understanding the brain mechanisms underlying these processes, their development across the life span, and individual differences in these processes ranging from normality to psychopathology, is key to scientists from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, and may lead to targeted treatment strategies for these symptom domains when impulsivity and compulsivity become dysfunctional.


From June 20 to July 1, the Cognitive Science Center Amsterdam organizes an interdisciplinary Summer School on inhibition and impulsivity for graduate students (master and beginning PhD-students). The aim of the SummerSchool is to capture both the functional and dysfunctional aspects of inhibition and impulsive behavior. In an exciting joint venture, the SummerSchool will highlight state-of-the-art approaches to studying the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying impulsivity and the inhibition of inappropriate thought and action. Building on combined insights from (often the juxtaposition of) phenomenology, experimental psychology, behavioral economics, human and animal neurobiology, neurogenetics, neuropsychiatry, developmental cognitive neuroscience, and cognitive neuroimaging, a number of key themes emerge. For instance, what is the nature of individual differences in impulsive action and inhibitory control within the normal population, across different age groups, and among neuropsychiatric populations? What are the neurobiological underpinnings of (dys)functional impulsivity and inhibitory control?

During the first eight days of the SummerSchool, a number of tutorials on various topics regarding impulsivity and inhibition will be given by international experts. In addition, students will have to prepare a position paper concerning a number of controversial issues. The preparation of these papers will be carried out in small groups and will be supervised by researchers.

The last two days consist of a Symposium which can be attended separately from the rest of the SummerSchool. During the Symposium, internationally renowned researchers will present their most recent work, and engage in debates that reflect currently 'hot' issues in the field. In addition, the students will participate in a parliamentary style debate defending their position papers. Based on prior experience, we anticipate that this will be a highly interesting and stimulating event.

Adele Diamond

The Summer School is also a tribute to the work of Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia at Vancouver who will, as holder of the Frijda Chair, be a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam. Professor Diamond is one of the leading researchers in the field of impulsivity and inhibition. She has made countless and highly influential contributions to this emerging research field, most notably through her work on the development of functional and dysfunctional impulsivity and inhibitory control. On Thursday, June 30, Professor Diamond will deliver a keynote lecture (the honorary Frijda lecture) which can be also attended separate from the Summer School.

Speakers at the Summer School 2011:

  • Dr. Michael Frank (Brown University, Rhode Island, USA)
  • Dr. Damiaan Denys (Amsterdam Medial Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
  • Dr. Marcel Brass (Gent University, Gent, Belgium)
  • Dr. Jan Buitelaar (UMC St. Radboud, Nijmegen, The Netherlands)
  • Dr. Dawn Eagle (University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK)
  • Dr. Adele Diamond (University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada)


  • Dr. Richard Ridderinkhof (Dept. of Psychology, University of Amsterdam)
  • Dr. Damiaan Denys (Dept. of Psychiatry, Academic Medical Center Amsterdam)
  • Dr. Reinout Wiers (Dept. of Psychology, University of Amsterdam)