Research/Thinking Lab

How does the human mind innovate and create using past and present knowledge?  What enhances—or impairs—our ability to optimally take advantage of our acquired experience and learning?  How can we best promote mental agility to creatively and adaptively meet challenges, and to make the most of opportunities across the lifespan?  What cognitive, behavioral, and brain mechanisms are central to an agile mind?  My lab, using the diverse and convergent methodologies of cognitive neuroscience, explores these questions focusing particularly on the role of different levels of specificity of representation and varying levels of cognitive control.

Charting the semantic geography of the anterior temporal lobe.

Some examples of current and ongoing work in our lab:

  • when memory and perceiving collide: exploring the behavioral and brain effects of environmental perceptual distraction on our ability to retrieve information from long-term memory
  • the semantic geography of the temporal lobe: mapping the neural representation of abstract and concrete words and their novel combinations during the processing of meaning
  • tracing the deeper “footprints” of knowing and “managing” two or more languages on thinking and problem solving in nonlinguistic contexts
  • tracking the dynamic moment-to-moment carryover effects of alternative configurations of cognitive processing on creative problem solving and reasoning
  • attention and memory in older and younger adults
  • abstraction stepping in memory and in thinking: how similar? how different?
The iCASA Thinking Framework. Figure 1.10 reproduced from Innovating Minds (2015)


The iCASA Framework

(Koutstaal, The Agile Mind, 2012. New York: Oxford University Press)

I have developed the integrated Controlled-Automatic, Specific-Abstract (iCASA) framework for conceptualizing the processes and representations that contribute to agile thinking.  Although thinking clearly does involve concepts and memory, thinking is intimately interconnected with our goals and actions, emotions, perceptions, and our physical and symbolic environment.  And at the dynamic interface of these all is our brain.

In this framework, a central requirement for optimal mental agility is the ability to show what I call “oscillatory range” in both our levels of representational specificity, and our degrees of cognitive control.  When we are mentally agile, we are able to adaptively move between highly deliberate and intentional modes of control, to more spontaneous, to more automatic forms of control as circumstances change and in accordance with our goals.  We are also able to flexibly move between representations that are extremely abstract or general to representations that are specific, without becoming “constrained” to overly abstract or excessively detailed construals of the situation.

The iCASA framework builds on the strengths of dual-process accounts of cognition that bifurcate modes of thinking into two classes, such as an “Intuition” vs. “Reasoning” system, or “System 1” vs. “System 2.”  However, the iCASA framework addresses significant limitations of those accounts by explicitly recognizing continuous variation (gradations) in both levels of representational specificity (LoS) and degrees of cognitive control (DoC) — in not only concepts or memory, but also in our representations of goals and actions, perceptions, and emotions.  The iCASA framework also emphasizes the intimate reciprocal influence of our symbolic, physical, and social-emotional environment on the mind-brain.  The environment, broadly conceived, is continually and dynamically altering our LoS and DoC at multiple time-scales and at multiple levels—in an ongoing process of “making and finding.”

Distinguishing Mental Agility

Mental agility is related to many further concepts, such as creativity, self-regulation, executive function, fluid intelligence, and resilience.  However, whereas each of these constructs prototypically emphasizes a particular end of the degrees of control and/or levels of specificity continuum (for example, executive function is very closely tied to controlled processing), mental agility is a broader, more encompassing construct.  Research on mental agility focuses on the factors and conditions that enable us to adaptively and creatively modulate the degree of cognitive control that we demonstrate, and also to aptly and effectively adjust the level of representational specificity with which we conceive problems and respond to challenges and opportunities.


ATL 2015
ATL 2015

Wilma Koutstaal
S512-S517 Elliott Hall, Department of Psychology
University of Minnesota
75 East River Road
Minneapolis, MN  55455; Lab Telephone:  612-626-2174



Students interested in conducting research in our lab, including Directed Research Projects, should contact me via email (

Directions to Elliott Hall

Directions to the Imaging Center


In our lab, we examine processes and factors that may either enhance, or impede, our ability to think in flexibly adaptive ways.

Experimental cognitive psychology research is conducted with various participant populations.  Our lab also uses neuroimaging techniques (fMRI) to examine the neuroanatomical correlates of memory encoding and retrieval in healthy young adults.


Current Graduate Students

Kara Kedrick
Project: Purpose, beliefs, intrinsic motivation, and mental agility

Sara Knauz (formerly Arnold) (co-advised with Shmuel Lissek)
Project: The interplay of cognition with emotion

Windy Torgerud (co-advised with Paul Schrater, Psychology and Computer Science)
Project: Motivation at the interface of thought

Yihan Wu
Project: Mental flexibility, attentional capabilities, and creativity

Nao says hello!
Nao says hello!

Other Ongoing Projects 

Dara Gruber
Project:  Getting there: Navigation-based automated decision aids

Shane Hoversten, Ph.D.
Project:  Thinking portraits: Mind, body, language (“Semantic cognition”)
An interdisciplinary neuroimaging study, in collaboration with faculty
Jan Estep (Department of Art) and Sheng He (Department of Psychology)
and also with Xiaoyan (Angela) Qin and Lily Wang.

Dustin Meriwether, Ph.D.
Project:  Words in and out of context

Xiaoyan (Angela) Qin, Ph.D.
Project: Memory and perception: An fMRI study (with Stephen Engel)

Jean-Baptiste Quillien
Project: Problem solving and reasoning processes

Zane Thimmesch-Gill, Ph.D.
Project: Human-robot interaction, social and assistive robotics

Lily Wang, Ph.D.
Project: Language footprints

Baylor Wetzel, Ph.D. (together with Maria Gini, Department of Computer Science)
Project: Thinking in action: A new affordances-based approach to complex spatiotemporal reasoning in humans and software agents


Andrew Budson (Boston University School of Medicine)
Laurie Butler (University of Reading)
Anthony Cleare (Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London)
Stephen Engel (University of Minnesota)
Jan Estep (University of Minnesota)
Sheng He (University of Minnesota)
Rik Henson (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, UK)
Yuhong Jiang (University of Minnesota)
Gordon Legge (University of Minnesota)
Chad Marsolek (University of Minnesota)
Leh Woon Mok (James Cook University)
Daniel Schacter (Harvard University)
Jon Simons (University of Cambridge)
Mieke Verfaellie (Boston University)