How does the suffering of people around us shapes our actions?
What role does the vicarious activation of brain areas involved in first-hand pain perception play in this process?
To answer these questions, in my PhD project I use Bayesian models of reinforcement learning to study situations of social conflict, in which people have to choose between their own and another person’s benefit. The aim of my project is to extract trial by trial parameter estimations, in order to find out how embodiment of other people’s pain can shape our learning and decision making. Moreover, I’m interested in studying the brain regions involved in the processing of aversive outcomes, comparing conditions in which people witness the pain that they are inflicting to others, to conditions in which they can just imagine it.
I’ve always been a very curious kid, and I think it’s this constantly unfulfilled curiosity that brought me towards science. I obtained a Bachelor’s in Biology at the University of Pavia, where I worked in a lab that studies the differentiation of striatal medium spiny neurons from human stem cells, in the perspective of treating Huntington’s Disease patients. While doing my bachelor I also enrolled at IUSS (University School for advanced studies of Pavia), a school that allowed me to extend my knowledge in neuroscience. I was so fascinated by this field that I decided to do my second Bachelor’s thesis at IUSS, under the supervision of professor Bambini, who studies the relationship between language abilities and brain structure, with a particular focus on neuropragmatics. My work was about genetic mutations connected to speech disruption in schizophrenia and their relationship with lateralization in brain. Provided my great interest in cognition and behaviour, I decided to pursue my studies with a master in Neuroscience (University of Pisa). During my master, thanks to the Erasmus program, I had the opportunity to do a 9 months internship at the Cognition and Brain Plasticity Unit (University of Barcelona), under the supervision of Professor De Diego-Balaguer. My research focused on the impairment in temporal prediction in Huntington’s Disease, connected to difficulties in learning the association between auditory non-adjacent stimuli in language. After my graduation I felt the need to broaden my knowledge of behavioural neuroscience: among the themes that really interest me, I was particularly attracted by the mirror system, because I find this topic incredibly thrilling and full of unanswered questions. That’s why came to Amsterdam and joined the Social Brain Lab, first as a research assistant, and from February 2020 as a PhD.