Nicola De Pisapia


The study of attention is central to understanding how information is processed in cognitive systems. Modern cognitive research interprets attention as the capacity to select and enhance limited aspects of currently processed information, while suppressing the remaining aspects.

In this research, we focus on the relationship between controlled (intentional) and spontaneous (automatic) forms of attention.As such, the regulation of attention is present in several psychological processes and modes of thought, and it involves different brain networks. Within this general construct, our lines of research address more specifically mindfulness meditation, cognitive control, attentional disengagement, the balance between convergent and divergent thinking in creativity, and performance/wellbeing in the workplace.

Research directions

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a type of mental training involving the conscious effort to control attention on a target (usually the physical sensations linked to the breath), while simultaneously monitoring and letting go of distracting thoughts (excitation) and drifting of attention (dullness). In this line of research, we investigate how such mental trainings affect not just the regulation of attention, but also the regulation of emotion and the sense of self, both in adults and kids.

Conscious versus unconscious executive control

Executive control refers to the ability of the human brain - mostly associated with prefrontal cortex activity - to regulate attention in the execution of novel or complex goal-directed tasks. Previous studies and models of human cognition have assumed that executive control necessarily requires conscious processing of information. This perspective is in line with common sense and personal introspection, which suggest that our choices and action regulations are intentional and based on conscious stimuli.

Nevertheless, we and other researchers are showing in the last few years that executive control can involve or be triggered by unconscious processing of information, with consequent effects on observed behaviors. We investigate how interplay between brain networks for controlled attention (executive networks) and mind wandering (default-mode networks) plays a key role in the regulation of such different degrees of consciousness.

Brain mechanisms of automatic triggering of attention

In this line of research, we study brain dynamics during the spontaneous orientation of attention and the so-called "attentional disengagement". Automatic focus orientation is an indicator of the saliency of a stimulus. On the contrary, a lack of automatic attention orientation indicates a lack of attentive stimulus salience for the specific individual. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies show that a lack of automatic attentional orientation during resting state can be measured and identified as a lack of deactivation of the so-called default-mode network in the brain.

This network is, however, very active during the resting state phase, and is correlated with a mental state of free association (mind-wandering) and disengagement (detachment) from external sensory stimuli. When an individual's attention is selectively active towards an external sensory stimulation, the default-mode network is deactivated.

Therefore, its lack of deactivation is a good indicator of lack of automatic selective focus. We have used this mechanism to a variety of psychological phenomena. In particular, in one set of experiments we analyze the triggering of attention in adults who are exposed to infant auditory stimuli, and we found significant gender differences. In another project we investigate brain activity participants diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in response to socially-sounded auditory stimuli.
The basic hypothesis is that in subjects with DSA some of these auditory stimuli indicate a different activation pattern in the default-mode network than a control group with typical development.

Creativity as a balance between attentional control and mind-wandering

Being creative, roughly definable as the process of generating things which are new and good, is a special ability. In this line of research, we investigated the neural bases of the creative process in artistic and non-artistic settings. In general, we support the idea that creativity would influence the functional connectivity between regions involved in the default mode network, implicated in divergent thinking and generating novel ideas, and the executive control network, implicated in controlling attention and evaluating ideas. In a first project, we found stronger connectivity between areas of these two networks during creative tasks involving the visual arts, and this difference was enhanced in professional artists.

In another study we are exploring the brain correlates (white and grey matter) in individuals with different degrees of entrepreneurial attitudes (thus a non-artistic form of creativity). 

Attentional performance in the workplace and wellbeing

 In this line of research, we investigate the link between the propensity to distraction and the control of attention while executing complex tasks in the workplace that require a continuous focus of attention, especially under stressful conditions. Several studies in cognitive ergonomics are showing how individual variability, emotional regulation, interpersonal competence within the working team and digital technologies adopted are all key factors to predict attentional performance in the workplace, and how these processes are linked to individual wellbeing.

In a large project we are investigating how such variables can affect work performance and wellbeing in operators in retirement homes, and if and how they influence cognitive, emotional and relational variables in elderly guests and their family.

Internal collaborations

Paola Venuti, Full Professor
Remo Job, Full Professor
David Melcher, Associate Professor
Jorge Jovicich, Associate Professor
Alessandro Grecucci, Assistant Professor

External collaborations

Fabio Casati, Full Professor
Marc H. Bornstein, Full Professor NIH
Todd Braver, Full Professor Washington University in St. Louis
Pan Lin, Researcher Xi’an Jiaotong University

Selected publications

Scientific articles:

  • De Pisapia N., Grecucci A. (2017): Mindfulness: mania o rivoluzione. Giornale Italiano di Psicologia. (Articolo bersaglio). 2:249-270.
  • Lin P., Yang Y., Jovicich J., De Pisapia N., Ge S., Wang, X, Zuo C.S., Levitt JJ (2017) Dynamic Topology of Default Mode Network During Different Cognitive States. Scientific Reports. Apr 6;7:46088.
  • De Pisapia N., Bacci F., Parrott D. Melcher D.: (2016) Brain networks for visual creativity: planning a work of art. Scientific Report. 19;6:39185.
  • Rigo P., De Pisapia N., Bornstein M., Putnick D., Serra M., Esposito G., Venuti P. (2016) Neurocognitive processes in women and men in response to emotive sounds. Social Neuroscience (pu Feb 25:1-13. (Epub ahead of print)
  • Lin P., Yang Y., Jovicich J., De Pisapia N., Wang X., Zuo C.S., Levitt J.J. (2015) Static and dynamic posterior cingulate cortex nodal topology of default mode network predicts attention task performance. Brain Imaging and Behavior. 1-14.
  • Grecucci A., De Pisapia N., Thero D. K., Paladino MP, Venuti P, Job R (2015): Baseline and Strategic Effects behind Mindful Emotion Regulation: Behavioral and Physiological Investigation. PLoS ONE. 2015 Jan 15;10(1):e0116541.
  • De Pisapia N., Bornstein M. H., Rigo P., Esposito G., De Falco S., Venuti P. (2013): Sex Differences in Directional Brain Responses to Infant Hunger Cries. NeuroReport. 24(3), 142-146.
  • De Pisapia N., Serra M., Rigo P., Jager J., Papinutto N., Esposito G., Venuti P., Bornstein M. H. (2013): Interpersonal Competence in Young Adulthood and Right Laterality in White Matter. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Jun;26(6):1257-65
  • De Pisapia N., Turatto M., Lin P., Jovicich J., Caramazza A. (2012) Unconscious priming instructions modulate activity in default and executive networks of the human brain. Cerebral Cortex. 22(3):639-49.
  • De Pisapia N., Repovs G., Braver T. (2008) Computational models of attention and cognitive control. Chapter 15 of the Cambridge Handbook of Computational Psychology, Cambridge University Press edited by Ron Sun, 422-450.

Edited Book:

  • De Pisapia N. (Eds.) Unconscious information processing in executive control. A Research Topic of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 2013.