Dr Jonathan Nelson

Lecturer in Experimental Cognitive Psychology
+44 (0)1483 686890
34 AC 05
For office hours see

Academic and research departments

School of Psychology.



I completed my PhD (2005) Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), with a dissertation on Optimal Experimental Design as a Theory of Perceptual and Cognitive Information Acquisition [].

I did a postdoc (2005-2008) at the Salk Institute's Center for Neural Computation [] and UCSD's Computer Science and Engineering Department [].

I worked from 2008-2017 as a research scientist at the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition, at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development [].

I am an affiliated researcher with the Berlin School of Mind and Brain [] at Humboldt University, where I occasionally teach PhD students about Cognitive Science.

I am also a guest researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development [].

Research interests

Much of my research focuses on the psychology, mathematics, philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience of information. I like building (and playing!) games that teach key concepts in the mathematics of uncertainty, and hearing that children (after playing these games) tell their teacher "that was not math; that was a game". I also like "harnessing the creativity of the computer", so to speak, to figure out what various formal models entail, and when and why different models agree with or contradict each other, for instance about what exactly entropy is, or what would constitute a useful experiment in a probabilistic Bayesian framework.

I am interested in the relationship of perception (e.g. eye movements) and cognition, and more felt (gut feelings) vs more explicit representations. I also work on other themes in judgment and decision making and medical decision making, and on more applied aspects of decision making, such as figuring out which kind of information formats are most helpful for representing probabilities, relative to particular goals (see Wu et al., 2017).

Research collaborations

Since 2010 I have been leading a DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft)-funded project to develop integrative models of the value of information, that take into account psychological, mathematical, and philosophical considerations. This project is joint work with the philosopher Vincenzo Crupi (Turin), the mathematician and mathematics educator Laura Martignon (Ludwigsburg University of Education), and psychologists Björn Meder (Max Planck Institute for Human Development) and Katya Tentori (University of Trento). This project is part of the framework program on New Frameworks of Rationality (SPP 1516) , led by Markus Knauf (University of Giessen).

I have a number of projects with Flavia Filimon (Max Planck Institute for Human Development) and collaborators, to investigate the neural bases of valuation of information, the differences between learning probabilities through experience versus descriptively, the neural foundations of reaching movements, and multisensory representations for economic decision making tasks. Some collaborators on these projects includeGary Cottrell (University of California, San Diego), Gerd Gigerenzer (Max Planck Institute for Human Development), Amit Kothiyal (Max Planck Institute for Human Development), Terry Sejnowski (Salk Institute), Marty Sereno (San Diego State University), and Kirsten Volz (University of Tuebingen).


Convenor for Cognitive Psychology 1

Contributor to Further Statistics

Departmental duties

I am serving on the FHMS Human Subjects ethics committee.


Cognitive Science Society

Judgment and Decision Making Society

Mathematical Psychology Society

Psychonomic Society

Society for Neuroscience

My publications


Wu, CM; Schulz, E; Speekenbrink, M; Nelson, JD; Meder, B (in press). Mapping the unknown: The spatially correlated multi-armed bandit. Proceedings of the 2017 Conference of the Cognitive Science Society.

Wong, THJ; Nelson, JD; Schooler, LJ (in press). Sequential search behavior changes according to distribution shape despite having a rank-based goal. Proceedings of the International Conference on Cognitive Modeling.

Knauber, HM; Schray, HH; Meder, B; Meder, B; Martignon, LF; Nelson, JD (accepted). Informationssuche im Mathematikunterricht der Grundschule- Fabelwesen als mögliches Lern-Lehrarrangement (Information search in primary school mathematics education- mythical creatures can be used to teach). Mathematischen und Naturwissenschaftlichen Unterrichts Journal (Mathematics and Natural Science Education Journal).

Jarecki, J; Meder, B; Nelson, JD (2017). Naïve and robust: Class-conditional independence in human classification learning. Cognitive Science. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12496

Wu, C; Meder, B; Filimon, F; Nelson, JD (2017). Asking better questions: How presentation formats influence information search. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. doi: 10.1037/xlm0000374

Nelson, JD; Divjak, B; Gudmundsdottir, G; Martignon, L; Meder, B (2014). Children's sequential information search is sensitive to environmental probabilities. Cognition, 130(1), 74-80.

Moussaïd, M; Nelson, JD (2014). Simple heuristics and the modeling of crowd behaviours. Pedestrian and Evacuation Dynamics 2012, 75-90.

Filimon, F; Philiastides, M; Nelson, JD; Kloosterman, N; Heekeren, H (2013). How embodied is perceptual decision making?— Evidence for separate processing of perceptual and motor decisions. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(5), 2121-2136.

Jarecki, J; Meder, B; Nelson, JD (2013). The assumption of class-conditional independence in category learning. In M. Knauff, M. Pauen, N. Sebanz, & I. Wachsmuth (Eds.), Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 2650-2655). Austin, Texas: Cognitive Science Society.

Meder, BM*; Nelson, JD* (2012). Information search under asymmetric reward conditions. Judgment and Decision Making, 7(2), 119-148. *joint first authors

Nelson, JD; McKenzie, CRM; Cottrell, GW; Sejnowski, TJ (2010). Experience matters: information acquisition optimizes probability gain. Psychological Science, 21(7), 960-969.

Filimon, F; Nelson, JD; Huang, R.-S.; Sereno, M. I. (2009). Multiple parietal reach regions in humans: cortical representations for visual and proprioceptive feedback during online reaching. Journal of Neuroscience, 29(9), 2961-2971

Nelson, JD (2009). Naïve optimality: Subjects' heuristics can be better-motivated than experimenters' optimal models. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32, 94-95.

Nelson, JD & McKenzie, CRM (2009). Confirmation bias. In M. Kattan (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Medical Decision Making, pp. 167-171. London, UK: Sage.

Nelson, JD (2008). Towards a rational theory of human information acquisition. In Oaksford, M & Chater, N (Eds.), The Probabilistic Mind: Prospects for Bayesian Cognitive Science (pp. 143-163). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, JD (2008). Conversations on cognitivism and the study of language. Cognitive Science Online, 6, 45-60.

Filimon, F; Nelson, JD; Hagler, DJ; Sereno, MI (2007). Human cortical representations for reaching: mirror neurons for execution, observation, and imagery. NeuroImage, 37(4), 1315-1328.

Nelson, JD; Cottrell, GW (2007). A probabilistic model of eye movements in concept formation. Neurocomputing, 70, 2256-2272.

Nelson, JD (2005). Finding useful questions: on Bayesian diagnosticity, probability, impact and information gain. Psychological Review, 112(4), 979-999.

McKenzie, CRM; Nelson, JD (2003). What a speaker's choice of frame reveals: Reference points, frame selection, and framing effects. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 10(3), 596-602.

Nelson, JD; Movellan, JR (2001) Active inference in concept learning. Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems, 13, 45-51.

Movellan, JR; Nelson, JD (2001). Probabilistic functionalism: a unifying paradigm for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(4), 690-692.

Nelson, JD; Tenenbaum, JB; Movellan, JR (2001). Active inference in concept learning. In J. D. Moore & K. Stenning (Eds.), Proceedings of the 23rd Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 692-697. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.