Understanding Human Cognition

The long-standing interest of the James S. McDonnell Foundation on human mind/brain is reflected in changes made to the 2008 RFA, including the explicit emphasis on understanding human cognition. The program is intended to help investigators pursue experiments designed to answer well-articulated questions.

JSMF Scholar Awards support research studying how neural systems are linked to and support cognitive functions and how cognitive systems are related to an organism’s (preferably human) observable behavior. Studies with model organisms should justify why such models were selected and how data obtained from models advances our understanding of human cognition.

Proposals proposing to use functional imaging to identify the “neural correlates” of cognitive or behavioral tasks (for example, mapping the parts of the brain that ‘light up” when different groups of subjects play chess, solve physics problems, or choose apples over oranges) are not funded through this program. In general, JSMF and its expert advisors have taken an unfavorable view of projects attempting too wide a leap in a single bound. Functional imaging studies using poorly characterized tasks as proxies for complex behavioral issues involving empathy, moral judgments, or social decision-making are generally not appropriate responses to this call for proposals. In past competitions, proposals structured along such lines were eliminated from funding consideration early in the review process.

Applicants should keep in mind that JSMF plans to fund less than a dozen Scholar Awards each year. The foundation is looking for well-designed experiments matched to intriguing questions. By intriguing questions we do not mean that the questions derive from whatever is the current reigning trend or need be something way “out there”. The proposed question should not stretch beyond what is answerable with available or develop-able research tools. Aspects of proposals appropriate to the JSMF UHC program would include, but are not limited to:

  • characterizing the cognitive operations involved in performing a task
  • studying how the brain identifies, extracts and uses relevant information from complicated environments
  • examining how manipulations and/or perturbations at one spatial or temporal scale are meaningful at finer or coarser levels of organization (e.g. does a synaptic change account for a change in network function and vice versa?)
  • re-examining ‘common wisdom’ assumptions (such as the existence of critical periods in human learning)
  • evaluating the usefulness of methodologies or improving the usefulness of methodologies commonly used in mind/brain research
  • applying approaches and knowledge from cognitive psychology or cognitive science to important problems in education, training, or rehabilitation
  • taking a comparative, evolutionary approach to characterizing the uniqueness of the human brain and of human cognition


Teachers as Learners

Amount: $2,500,000
Duration: 5 years
Eligibility: Request for Pre-proposals (open to multi-institutional teams)


Scholar Award

Amount: $600,000
Duration: 6 years
Eligibility: By nomination only