Highlighted Researchers in TMU Neuroscience: Dr. Philip Tseng, Behavioral Neuroscientist


Dr. Tseng is an associate professor at the TMU Graduate Institute of Mind, Brain, and Consciousness. He grew up in San Jose, California and completed his undergrad at UC San Diego. After finishing his PhD at UC Santa Cruz, he spent a year in Silicon Valley studying driving behavior at Volkswagen’s Electronics Research Lab. He’s been at TMU for the past three years, and was honored in 2017 as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons of Taiwan for his pioneering work in EEG recording and brain stimulation. To find more about Dr. Tseng please click Here.


Can you describe neuroscience and behavioral neuroscience for us?

Neuroscience is a big term that covers many things. You can study the brain at the cellular level, or even at the genetic level. For me and my colleagues, we are at the very end where we study behavior. You can know everything about what each little neuron is doing, but how does that translate into emotions or memory and human behavior? That’s tough. We look at system level neuroscience, we look at how different brain regions talk to each other, and how activity changes within these brain regions affect human behavior.

So we’re on a more macroscopic level, whereas the molecular or cellular neuroscientists are looking at a much finer level, though we can all be studying the same problem from a very different perspective. For me it’s more fun this way, but it’s also complicated.

Why is neuroscience interesting to you? How did you first get interested in behavioral neuroscience?

I wasn’t actually a psychology major to begin with, I was a biology major. I found genetics very interesting. I wanted to blend computer science and genetics. Now it would be called bioinformatics, and I thought that was the coolest thing. I was taking psychology as a GE course, but one of the perceptual lectures just blew my mind. In the lecture the instructor showed all these visual illusions… Have you seen the white and gold dress or black blue dress on the internet? Your brain made up everything you see, you touch, you hear and smell—we practically live in a virtual world the brain has constructed for us, and for a good reason, for survival. But it makes a lot of mistakes all the time… We’re not even aware of it, and that’s the coolest part. After taking that lecture, I was like whoa, I have to change my major! I have to do this for the rest of my life. Then I realized, oh wow, I needed ten more years of education. That was a painful realization at the time.


What kind of research are you doing at TMU now?

Could we manipulate brainwaves to help people that are having problems paying attention? Maybe, if we could inject waves back into the brain – our results indicate that this is the case sometimes. For example people with poor short term memory, after electric stimulation, they can improve their performance. But for people at the high end, their performance do not improve. No matter how you zap their brain they’re not going to be superhuman. But for people whose average [memory performance is lower], they can actually improve their performance by 20-30%.

I’m now also trying to blend brain stimulation with driving performance. Is there any region in the brain I can stimulate to make people less fatigued or to make people more alert? Or maybe to make people more conservative in their driving behavior, less risk-taking? The next aim is to get as many people into our driving simulator, and find if some of those tasks can be predictive of people’s driving behavior in the real world. I’m trying to establish a stationary task that could be predictive of people’s driving behavior. I’m also thinking about planting electrodes in a motorcycle helmet for brain stimulation.

I think you’re also doing some research on cross-cultural reasoning, religion, and moral judgement.

Yeah, [moral reasoning and judgment in different populations] is a new line of research that Tim, the Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and I try to collaborate on. He does philosophy of neuroethics, it ties together philosophy and neurology and law all together. I’m personally very interested in the effect of religion on moral judgments because it seems when you’re so invested in one school of thought or one religion, it takes over people’s reasoning abilities. We’re trying to investigate that and see which brain regions are responsible for this kind of phenomenon. We’re also doing some cross-cultural reasoning on moral judgments between Taiwan and the US and Europe.


What’s next for your research?

All this research is keeping me busy, but now my main focus is how to use EEG and maybe brain stimulation to do memory detection. If someone denies ever seeing some crime-related items, yet there’s a beautiful memory trace showing on their EEG, then we may have good reason to suspect the person might be lying. We’re detecting memory traces that only the guilty would have. You can also apply this to eyewitness memory. We can use EEG to see if eyewitness confidence is real or not, should we trust this person’s testimony or not.

Right now I’m also working with the investigation bureau (located next door to the Da-an Campus). We’re trying to work out techniques beyond the polygraph, such as using EEG to monitor cognitive load. But of course there is still a long way to go.


How can other branches of neuroscience help you in behavioral neuroscience?

I work very closely with my colleagues in our Brain, Mind, and Consciousness program. All of us come from different backgrounds. Our leader Tim is a philosopher, I’m a trained cognitive psychologist, Tzu- Yu (Dr. Tzu-Yu Hsu) is a cognitive neuroscientist, Niall Duncan from Scotland is a biologist with a background in philosophy and pharmacology, Chang-wei (Dr. Chang-wei Wu), he’s an electrical engineer who’s interested in consciousness, and Jihwan (Dr. Jihwan Myung) the new faculty from Korea is a physicist, and he’s interested in mood and time perception. I get a lot of interdisciplinary stimulation. Outside of our department I collaborate with Po Fang (Dr. Po-fang Tsai), a sociologist from the humanities in medicine department.

It’s a very interesting experience to step outside of my comfort zone and listen to the other subfields. It’s fascinating to see the difference in rationale between the subfields. As neuroscientists, we can explain the neural activity and link it to behavior, but what is the background? Is it evolutionary forces, or is it culture that influences what we observe in the brain. For that I need to rely on people in other subfields. At the end, everything is interdisciplinary. You can’t just lock yourself up in the lab. It’s sometimes hard to integrate because we’re all looking at things from different perspectives and it can be hard to find the same language to talk to one another. But when you do, that’s when big discoveries are made.


What other kinds of neuroscience research are going on at TMU that’s interesting to you?

There’s a group of scientists from the neuro-regeneration program who are doing structural analysis of MRI images, diffusion spectrum imaging. It’s a variation of FMRI to track down the fibers in the brain. Arica Lo is using that to study children with autism. That’s very interesting work that she’s doing and she’s making a lot of progress.

There’s also a group of MDs at the TMU hospital from the rehabilitation department that are using brain stimulation, but in a different way from how I would normally use it. Usually I would lock my stimulation to [a specific] task, but these people are doing stimulation over the motor cortex or over the spinal cortex to help facilitate the rehab program. I think that’s pretty cool.

I also know some psychiatrists at Wanfang who are analyzing sleep patterns of schizophrenia patients and heart rate variability in different psychiatric disorders. I think it’s all connected, the biology, the physiology, and the psychiatric disorders, so I think that in the next couple of decades psychiatry should experience a huge breakthrough, given what we know in neuroscience.

For interviews or a copy of the paper, contact Office of Global Engagement via global.initiatives@tmu.edu.tw.