Winner Social Sciences 2020

Social Educational Neuroscience Amsterdam (SENSA)
VU Amsterdam

Social Educational Neuroscience Amsterdam (SENSA)

‘We are working towards an inclusive society where the next generation is the most social so far’

Research focus

How can the next generation be the most social so far?

Building a social society

“They who have youth, have the future”, is a well-known Dutch saying. The fact that this statement is now more relevant than ever is seen in the crucial challenges facing the next generation: from climate change to an increasingly diverse society in which opinions are often extremely divided. An important issue for the future is how to promote and maintain social cohesion in a society where individualism and discrimination seem to be increasingly relentlessly? In other words: how do we ensure an inclusive society in which people take account of the needs and the beliefs of others?

One thing is clear: we need to understand how people interact with each other and above all what motivates them to make choices in their social interactions that are positive for themselves and others as well as for future generations and the natural world. This is what the nine-member team Social Educational Neuroscience Amsterdam (SENSA) at the VU University in Amsterdam is working on. It is investigating what happens in the brains of children and adolescents during all sorts of often subconscious, social interactions, the assumption being that the sooner you understand what is going on in the young, still developing brains, the greater the chance that you, their teacher or parent, can influence them in a positive way.

The sooner you understand what is going on in the young, still developing brains, the greater the chance that you can influence them in a positive way.

One of the ground breaking achievements of the SENSA team’s research came from its experiments into social mindfulness, using a method which it developed to capture just such subtle, subconscious reactions. This method is now used by social scientists worldwide when conducting their own similar research. It works as follows: imagine you are with a friend in a café and are about to order. There are only three slices of cake left to choose from: two pieces of apple cake and one of carrot cake. If you are the first to choose, what do you order? The apple cake, so that your friend still has a choice, or do you not take that into account and choose the carrot cake for yourself? The SENSA team discovered that leaving the other person the choice, or effectively taking it away from them, reveals a lot about how people feel towards each other and how this affects the whole nature of their relationship. People can be more or less ‘socially mindful’, depending on their personality, experiences, or situation. Supporters of rival, hostile, football teams, for example, make considerably fewer ‘social’ choices when taking part in this experiment.

The SENSA team sees all sorts of possibilities for new variations of this experiment, allowing them to understand better how these processes work for different people in different situations, both at the level of behaviour and in the brain. For example, a study is currently taking place using the brain scan whilst observing two test subjects who have markedly different political views. Follow up studies are focussing on how the experiment can be modified to make it suitable for work with children. The ultimate goal of such research is that one day it will be possible to intervene at the optimal moment in a person’s development so that from an early age and almost automatically, children approach everyone, from friends to outsiders, in a positive way.

Even at pre-school age, children make a distinction as to whom they help and in what way based on the other child’s origin.

The results so far have been remarkable because the research team is increasingly able to capture and make sense of these very subtle forms of behaviour, which can have major consequences in all sorts of social situations. A specific and very relevant example is in the school classroom, where the sorts of mechanisms being studied play a role, for example, in determining why some pupils in a group become isolated or discriminated against and why others are readily accepted. In order to understand this, SENSA studies the helping behaviour of children. By doing so they have discovered, among other things, that even at pre-school age, children make a distinction as to whom they help and in what way based on the other child’s origin. For example, the team found that children from other [social/racial/religious] backgrounds were not receiving the same level of help. The reasons for this and what the consequences of the different ways of helping are for a person’s status within a group and his or her self-image are currently being investigated further.

An additional ground breaking aspect to much of the SENSA research is that the team uses portable EEG devices to collect their research data outside the laboratory, in real life settings such as the classroom. This technology can be used there and then to show children their own brain signals, for example while working with classmates. The children actually experience that they can influence their biological processes themselves. Initial pilot studies are promising and show that this form of feedback can strengthen children’s sense of autonomy and control, which can benefit the social functioning of their brains.

The current research has led to new questions that the SENSA team wants to use the Award for. As far as social mindfulness is concerned, one of the things the team wants to find out is how ‘taking others into account’ develops over time, and at what age such a subtle process can be influenced positively. This also includes the question of what makes one child automatically take the concerns of others into account whilst another child has to make more effort to do so. The next step is to find out how to stimulate further the positive development of the social processes of the brain. Does it really make sense to give children feedback about their own brain activity via portable EEGs?

The way in which the team thinks about social impact and applications in practice, including specifically in education, is recognised internationally as innovative and groundbreaking.

Due to the unique composition of this multidisciplinary team, new breakthroughs are expected. With three senior members, three mid-career and three junior researchers, the team is considered to be optimally balanced, and the research quality of all members is of a high international standard. SENSA prioritises a broad interdisciplinary approach and successfully builds bridges between social psychology and other disciplines such as developmental psychology, educational science, social neuroscience, sociology and experimental economics. The way in which the team thinks about social impact and applications in practice, including specifically in education, is recognised internationally as innovative and groundbreaking.   

In addition, all team members are developing experiments that related to the challenges faced in everyday life. They attach great importance to their research results being practically useful in real life situations. As the team itself puts it: “We share our fascination for social processes, for concepts such as trust and social mindfulness and the desire to translate these into experimental situations so that they can be investigated, and ultimately so that parents and teachers can be advised as to how best to address these in order to positively influence children. And if that succeeds then the next generation may truly be the most social yet.”

Photo: Iris Duvekot

Team members, (f.l.t.r.): TuongVan Vu, Nikkie Lee, Barbara Braams, Jellie Sierksma, Tieme Janssen, Paul van Lange, Mariët van Buuren, Lydia Krabbendam, Nienke van Atteveldt.

The team

Nienke van Atteveldt

Nienke van Atteveldt

Nienke van Atteveldt (1977) studied Biology at Utrecht University and then obtained her PhD cum laude in Cognitive Neuroscience at Maastricht University in 2006. Following this she received a Veni grant and a Marie Curie scholarship which allowed her to carry out combined research at Columbia University in New York. In 2016 Atteveldt received an ERC Starting Grant of €1.6 million to establish a new research programme on the interactive development of self-image, brain mechanisms for processing errors and feedback, and performance and well-being at school. She is currently working as a University Research Chair professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

Tieme Janssen

Tieme Janssen

Tieme Janssen (1985) studied Neuropsychology at Maastricht University. He completed his PhD research at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam (2010-2015), where he now works as a university lecturer. His research in cognitive neuroscience focuses on typical development (the role of motivation) and clinical development (ADHD, dyslexia), and is both fundamental and applied (neurofeedback). Janssen received an EARLI Emerging Field Group grant which enabled him to establish an international network to facilitate the sharing of knowledge concerning mobile brain scanning techniques. Innovations in this area will allow future research to take place partly outside the research laboratory, for example in a classroom setting.

Nikki Lee

Nikki Lee

Nikki Lee (1984) obtained a bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences and an MSc in Neuropsychology from Maastricht University, followed by an MPhil in Educational Psychology from the University of Cambridge, for which she received a grant from the VSBfonds. She completed her PhD research (2008-2012) which was partly funded by a Kootstra Fellowship, at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam where she is currently working as a university lecturer in the department of Clinical, Neuro- and Developmental Psychology. Her re-search focuses on the dynamic interactions between neurocognitive development and the social environment, and their influence on developmental trajectories during adolescence.

Barbara Braams

Barbara Braams

Barbara Braams (1986) did her PhD research at Leiden University, after which she did postdoctoral research at Harvard for more than 2 years. She has been a University Lecturer at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam since 2018. Her research focuses on the neurocognitive development of adolescents and specifically on why adolescents take more risks than children and adults. Her research has been published in prestigious journals. In 2016 she received a NWO Rubicon grant and in 2017 a NWO Veni grant. Her work has been publicly recognized through the award of the Dutch Neuroscience Meeting Young Talent Award (2018) and the KHMW J.C. Ruigrok Prize (2019).

Paul van Lange

Paul van Lange

Paul van Lange (1961) is Professor of Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and has also been an affiliate of Oxford University since 2014. He conducts research on human cooperation, with an emphasis on altruism, selfishness, and aggression. He combines insights from psychology and from experimental economics with evolutionary and neuro sciences and applies these to social issues such as climate change, refugee crises and aggression in sporting activities. He has received numerous grants for his research from Australia, China, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the USA, as well as international awards including the Kurt Lewin Award from the European Association of Social Psychology.

Jellie Sierksma

Jellie Sierksma

Jellie Sierksma (1983) studied Social Psychology at the University of Amsterdam and subsequently carried out doctoral research on the social development of children at Utrecht University (2010-2015). She then did postdoctoral research for two at Radboud University in Nijmegen before being awarded a Rubicon grant and spending a further two years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA). She has now returned to the Netherlands where she is an assistant professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Having received a Veni grant from the NWO in 2019 her research focuses on the development of prosocial behaviour, prejudice and discrimination.

Mariët van Buuren

Mariët van Buuren

Mariët van Buuren (1982) is a cognitive neuroscientist. After completing her bachelor’s and research master’s degrees in Psychology (cum laude) at the University of Amsterdam, she conducted her PhD research on social cognition and underlying brain mechanisms at the Department of Psychiatry of the University Medical Center in Utrecht and at the University of Utrecht (2008-2012). She then worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in Nijmegen (2012-2016). She is currently a university lecturer in the Department of Clinical Developmental Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, where she researches the brain mechanisms of social cognition using functional MRI.

Lydia Krabbendam

Lydia Krabbendam

Lydia Krabbendam (1971) studied Neuropsychology at Radboud University in Nijmegen and obtained her PhD at Maastricht University in 2000 following research on the subject of cognitive functions in psychotic disorders. She then worked in clinical practice for a number of years and obtained registration as a clinical neuropsychologist. Since 2011 she has been Professor of Neuropsychology at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, within the Department of Clinical, Neuro- and Developmental Psychology. Her research focuses on the development of social cognition and social relationships in adolescence and early adulthood. She has received both a VIDI and a VICI research grant and an ERC Consolidator grant.

TuongVan Vu

TuongVan Vu

TuongVan Vu (1984) studied Liberal Arts and Sciences at University College Utrecht (BA, Hons, 2010). After an internship at the Netherlands Organisation for applied scientific research (TNO), TuongVan obtained her masters degree following research into Social Psychology (MSc, cum laude, 2013). She then worked at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and in 2019 presented her PhD thesis at the Vrije Universiteit in Am-sterdam. TuongVan is continuing her work as a postdoctoral researcher on a project investigating the relationship between motivation and learning which is being funded by the Jacobs Foundation. Within the SENSA team, she shares her expertise in social cognition and her experience with research methods from Social Neuroscience and Cultural Psychology.

Nienke van Atteveldt

Nienke van Atteveldt

Nienke van Atteveldt (1977) studied Biology at Utrecht University and then obtained her PhD cum laude in Cognitive Neuroscience at Maastricht University in 2006. Following this she received a Veni grant and a Marie Curie scholarship which allowed her to carry out combined research at Columbia University in New York. In 2016 Atteveldt received an ERC Starting Grant of €1.6 million to establish a new research programme on the interactive development of self-image, brain mechanisms for processing errors and feedback, and performance and well-being at school. She is currently working as a University Research Chair professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

Mariët van Buuren

Mariët van Buuren

Mariët van Buuren (1982) is a cognitive neuroscientist. After completing her bachelor’s and research master’s degrees in Psychology (cum laude) at the University of Amsterdam, she conducted her PhD research on social cognition and underlying brain mechanisms at the Department of Psychiatry of the University Medical Center in Utrecht and at the University of Utrecht (2008-2012). She then worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in Nijmegen (2012-2016). She is currently a university lecturer in the Department of Clinical Developmental Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, where she researches the brain mechanisms of social cognition using functional MRI.

Lydia Krabbendam

Lydia Krabbendam

Lydia Krabbendam (1971) studied Neuropsychology at Radboud University in Nijmegen and obtained her PhD at Maastricht University in 2000 following research on the subject of cognitive functions in psychotic disorders. She then worked in clinical practice for a number of years and obtained registration as a clinical neuropsychologist. Since 2011 she has been Professor of Neuropsychology at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, within the Department of Clinical, Neuro- and Developmental Psychology. Her research focuses on the development of social cognition and social relationships in adolescence and early adulthood. She has received both a VIDI and a VICI research grant and an ERC Consolidator grant.

Nikki Lee

Nikki Lee

Nikki Lee (1984) obtained a bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences and an MSc in Neuropsychology from Maastricht University, followed by an MPhil in Educational Psychology from the University of Cambridge, for which she received a grant from the VSBfonds. She completed her PhD research (2008-2012) which was partly funded by a Kootstra Fellowship, at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam where she is currently working as a university lecturer in the department of Clinical, Neuro- and Developmental Psychology. Her re-search focuses on the dynamic interactions between neurocognitive development and the social environment, and their influence on developmental trajectories during adolescence.

TuongVan Vu

TuongVan Vu

TuongVan Vu (1984) studied Liberal Arts and Sciences at University College Utrecht (BA, Hons, 2010). After an internship at the Netherlands Organisation for applied scientific research (TNO), TuongVan obtained her masters degree following research into Social Psychology (MSc, cum laude, 2013). She then worked at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and in 2019 presented her PhD thesis at the Vrije Universiteit in Am-sterdam. TuongVan is continuing her work as a postdoctoral researcher on a project investigating the relationship between motivation and learning which is being funded by the Jacobs Foundation. Within the SENSA team, she shares her expertise in social cognition and her experience with research methods from Social Neuroscience and Cultural Psychology.

Barbara Braams

Barbara Braams

Barbara Braams (1986) did her PhD research at Leiden University, after which she did postdoctoral research at Harvard for more than 2 years. She has been a University Lecturer at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam since 2018. Her research focuses on the neurocognitive development of adolescents and specifically on why adolescents take more risks than children and adults. Her research has been published in prestigious journals. In 2016 she received a NWO Rubicon grant and in 2017 a NWO Veni grant. Her work has been publicly recognized through the award of the Dutch Neuroscience Meeting Young Talent Award (2018) and the KHMW J.C. Ruigrok Prize (2019).

Tieme Janssen

Tieme Janssen

Tieme Janssen (1985) studied Neuropsychology at Maastricht University. He completed his PhD research at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam (2010-2015), where he now works as a university lecturer. His research in cognitive neuroscience focuses on typical development (the role of motivation) and clinical development (ADHD, dyslexia), and is both fundamental and applied (neurofeedback). Janssen received an EARLI Emerging Field Group grant which enabled him to establish an international network to facilitate the sharing of knowledge concerning mobile brain scanning techniques. Innovations in this area will allow future research to take place partly outside the research laboratory, for example in a classroom setting.

Paul van Lange

Paul van Lange

Paul van Lange (1961) is Professor of Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and has also been an affiliate of Oxford University since 2014. He conducts research on human cooperation, with an emphasis on altruism, selfishness, and aggression. He combines insights from psychology and from experimental economics with evolutionary and neuro sciences and applies these to social issues such as climate change, refugee crises and aggression in sporting activities. He has received numerous grants for his research from Australia, China, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the USA, as well as international awards including the Kurt Lewin Award from the European Association of Social Psychology.

Jellie Sierksma

Jellie Sierksma

Jellie Sierksma (1983) studied Social Psychology at the University of Amsterdam and subsequently carried out doctoral research on the social development of children at Utrecht University (2010-2015). She then did postdoctoral research for two at Radboud University in Nijmegen before being awarded a Rubicon grant and spending a further two years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA). She has now returned to the Netherlands where she is an assistant professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Having received a Veni grant from the NWO in 2019 her research focuses on the development of prosocial behaviour, prejudice and discrimination.

Nienke van Atteveldt

Nienke van Atteveldt

Nienke van Atteveldt (1977) studied Biology at Utrecht University and then obtained her PhD cum laude in Cognitive Neuroscience at Maastricht University in 2006. Following this she received a Veni grant and a Marie Curie scholarship which allowed her to carry out combined research at Columbia University in New York. In 2016 Atteveldt received an ERC Starting Grant of €1.6 million to establish a new research programme on the interactive development of self-image, brain mechanisms for processing errors and feedback, and performance and well-being at school. She is currently working as a University Research Chair professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

Barbara Braams

Barbara Braams

Barbara Braams (1986) did her PhD research at Leiden University, after which she did postdoctoral research at Harvard for more than 2 years. She has been a University Lecturer at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam since 2018. Her research focuses on the neurocognitive development of adolescents and specifically on why adolescents take more risks than children and adults. Her research has been published in prestigious journals. In 2016 she received a NWO Rubicon grant and in 2017 a NWO Veni grant. Her work has been publicly recognized through the award of the Dutch Neuroscience Meeting Young Talent Award (2018) and the KHMW J.C. Ruigrok Prize (2019).

Mariët van Buuren

Mariët van Buuren

Mariët van Buuren (1982) is a cognitive neuroscientist. After completing her bachelor’s and research master’s degrees in Psychology (cum laude) at the University of Amsterdam, she conducted her PhD research on social cognition and underlying brain mechanisms at the Department of Psychiatry of the University Medical Center in Utrecht and at the University of Utrecht (2008-2012). She then worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in Nijmegen (2012-2016). She is currently a university lecturer in the Department of Clinical Developmental Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, where she researches the brain mechanisms of social cognition using functional MRI.

Tieme Janssen

Tieme Janssen

Tieme Janssen (1985) studied Neuropsychology at Maastricht University. He completed his PhD research at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam (2010-2015), where he now works as a university lecturer. His research in cognitive neuroscience focuses on typical development (the role of motivation) and clinical development (ADHD, dyslexia), and is both fundamental and applied (neurofeedback). Janssen received an EARLI Emerging Field Group grant which enabled him to establish an international network to facilitate the sharing of knowledge concerning mobile brain scanning techniques. Innovations in this area will allow future research to take place partly outside the research laboratory, for example in a classroom setting.

Lydia Krabbendam

Lydia Krabbendam

Lydia Krabbendam (1971) studied Neuropsychology at Radboud University in Nijmegen and obtained her PhD at Maastricht University in 2000 following research on the subject of cognitive functions in psychotic disorders. She then worked in clinical practice for a number of years and obtained registration as a clinical neuropsychologist. Since 2011 she has been Professor of Neuropsychology at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, within the Department of Clinical, Neuro- and Developmental Psychology. Her research focuses on the development of social cognition and social relationships in adolescence and early adulthood. She has received both a VIDI and a VICI research grant and an ERC Consolidator grant.

Paul van Lange

Paul van Lange

Paul van Lange (1961) is Professor of Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and has also been an affiliate of Oxford University since 2014. He conducts research on human cooperation, with an emphasis on altruism, selfishness, and aggression. He combines insights from psychology and from experimental economics with evolutionary and neuro sciences and applies these to social issues such as climate change, refugee crises and aggression in sporting activities. He has received numerous grants for his research from Australia, China, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the USA, as well as international awards including the Kurt Lewin Award from the European Association of Social Psychology.

Nikki Lee

Nikki Lee

Nikki Lee (1984) obtained a bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences and an MSc in Neuropsychology from Maastricht University, followed by an MPhil in Educational Psychology from the University of Cambridge, for which she received a grant from the VSBfonds. She completed her PhD research (2008-2012) which was partly funded by a Kootstra Fellowship, at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam where she is currently working as a university lecturer in the department of Clinical, Neuro- and Developmental Psychology. Her re-search focuses on the dynamic interactions between neurocognitive development and the social environment, and their influence on developmental trajectories during adolescence.

Jellie Sierksma

Jellie Sierksma

Jellie Sierksma (1983) studied Social Psychology at the University of Amsterdam and subsequently carried out doctoral research on the social development of children at Utrecht University (2010-2015). She then did postdoctoral research for two at Radboud University in Nijmegen before being awarded a Rubicon grant and spending a further two years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA). She has now returned to the Netherlands where she is an assistant professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Having received a Veni grant from the NWO in 2019 her research focuses on the development of prosocial behaviour, prejudice and discrimination.

TuongVan Vu

TuongVan Vu

TuongVan Vu (1984) studied Liberal Arts and Sciences at University College Utrecht (BA, Hons, 2010). After an internship at the Netherlands Organisation for applied scientific research (TNO), TuongVan obtained her masters degree following research into Social Psychology (MSc, cum laude, 2013). She then worked at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and in 2019 presented her PhD thesis at the Vrije Universiteit in Am-sterdam. TuongVan is continuing her work as a postdoctoral researcher on a project investigating the relationship between motivation and learning which is being funded by the Jacobs Foundation. Within the SENSA team, she shares her expertise in social cognition and her experience with research methods from Social Neuroscience and Cultural Psychology.