Carnegie Mellon University

Carl Olson

Dr. Carl R. Olson

Professor, Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition and Biomedical Engineering

Suite 115, Mellon Institute
Carnegie Mellon University
4400 Fifth Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213


  • B.A., Harvard University, 1966
  • M.A. Columbia University, 1967
  • Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 1979
  • Postdoc., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1982


Carl Olson is a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition and Professor by courtesy in Biomedical Engineering Department at Carnegie Mellon University. During the years, Dr. Olson has served as the director of the CNBC primate physiology laboratory. The laboratory currently houses two dozen monkeys and contains more than a dozen recording rigs. His lab uses neuronal recording in behaving monkeys to study the cortical mechanisms of cognition. Dr. Olson is dedicated to bridging from research in nonhuman primates to studies of human pathology.


Researchers in my laboratory study the brain mechanisms of cognition by recording from single neurons in the cerebral cortex of behaving monkeys. Our interests include spatial vision, visual pattern recognition and executive control.

Spatial vision encompasses a host of skills including the ability to see how parts are arranged in an object. Object-centered spatial vision is critical to various human activities including reading, which hinges on appreciating the arrangement of letters in a word. We study the neural underpinnings of object-centered spatial vision by recording from frontal and parietal neurons in monkeys trained to remember and respond to particular locations on objects.

Visual pattern recognition depends critically on inferotemporal cortex (IT), an area in which neurons respond selectively to particular visual images. We study the neural basis of pattern recognition by recording from single IT neurons while monkeys view natural and artificial images. One aim of current work is to determine whether IT neurons rare selective for the global attributes of an image (how the features are arranged in it) or simply to the local attributes (what features are present in it).

Executive control – deciding what to do moment by moment – depends on considering the consequences associated with particular actions and selecting the action that gives rise to the best outcome. We study the neural mechanisms of executive control by recording from neurons in frontal cortex while monkeys choose among actions that will result in different rewards or penalties. Neurons in some areas signal the emotional impact of an anticipated outcome (positive for reward and negative for penalty). Neuronal activity in other areas rises or falls according to how motivated the monkey is (regardless of whether motivation is driven by the promise of a reward or the threat of a penalty). We are interested in working out the neural processing stages by which emotional evaluation of consequences associated with actions gives rise to motivated behavior.

Research Interests: spatial vision, visual pattern recognition, executive control