I am a professor of Cognitive Neuroscience (Technology) at the Aalto University School of Science, in the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering and Department of Computer Science. I am the founder of the Brain and Mind Laboratory, which I currently direct with Iiro Jääskeläinen.
My early career concentrated on auditory neuroscience. I was one of the pioneers in active perception research, as already quite early I started to study cognitive brain functions such as orienting and attention, which paved way for the fundamental change in cognitive neuroscience we are seeing today from passive stimulus-response research into examining organisms as active perceivers. With my colleagues we demonstrated that event-related brain potentials provide an important tool to study neurophysiology underlying cognitive processes of the human brain. I started to use magnetoencephalography (MEG) to study sensory and cognitive functions of the human brain with Dr. Riitta Hari at the Low Temperature Laboratory of the Helsinki University of Technology. This early research revealed, among other things, that the main responses to the auditory stimuli are generated in the auditory cortex, as is the mismatch negativity (MMN), which has proved to be a valuable and widely used tool to study auditory functions. My early MEG studies preceded the present enthusiasm to study multisensory processing systems of the human brain. With my research team we studied extensively different aspects of audiovisual speech perception. We for example showed that audiovisual integration of speech stimuli is not immune to attention, but that direction of both visual and auditory attention influences integration. We also found important perceptual learning effects and effects of selective attention in the human auditory cortex and brainstem using combined fMRI/MEG and EEG. Recently I have renewed my interest in audiovisual speech perception and lip-reading.
In 1998 I started new research on facial animations (Talking Heads) capable of audiovisual speech and expressing facial emotions, at the moment a very quickly developing and extending research area. In addition, we started research on Human Brain-Computer interfaces, which later became internationally a very extensive research area. My most recent research interest is “naturalistic neuroscience”, studying functions of human brain in close-to-natural settings such as watching a movie or listening to whole musical pieces. My research group is among the relatively few ones working in this new field, which is an important extension and addition to the very successful standard paradigm in cognitive neuroscience. Now my research is strongly focusing on neurocognitive mechanisms of “social self”, i.e. how belonging to different groups and taking their perspectives influences neural mechanisms of behavior.
I was invited to take a newly established chair of cognitive science and technology in Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) in 1998. Providing research-based cognitive neuroscience education to students of technology and engineering was an important new opening in Finland. This education was highly successful and did provide Finnish society with engineers and PhDs in technology having deep understanding of human cognitive functions. Dr. Sams was the founder and leader of the international Brain and Mind Master’s Degree programme of Aalto University. This programme was in 2015 integrated with the new Life Science Technologies programme, in which I acted as the leader of the Major “Human Neuroscience and Technology”.
I was appointed as an academy professor for the period 1.8.2002–31.7.2007, soon after joining Helsinki University of Technology (now Aalto University School of Science). My new laboratory received the status of Center of Excellence from the Academy of Finland (Kimmo Kaski as director). After a successful five-year period as a center of excellence, with my colleagues we received a status of Centre of Excellence in Computational Complex Systems Research (2006–2011), where Kimmo Kaski was the director and I the vice director. I was shortlisted for a new period as an Academy Professor in 2010, 2011 and 2015.
My activities also include collaboration with musicians and artists. As an example, we organized with my musician colleagues a concert in The Turku Music Festival 2010 (“Happiness”), and the same ensemble organized another concert in Turku Music Festival in 2011 (“Fear”). These concerts were continued in 2012 (“Jealousy”) and in 2013 (“Surprise”). My research group also participated in visualization of the performance of Rite of Spring in the opening concert of Turku Music Festival in 2011. An important theme in this science-art collaboration is understanding of human emotional and social behavior. Artistic activity continued in 2016 in Helsinki Festival, where with my colleagues we had a concert on Happiness.