Nicolás Wiggenhauser, M.A.

Hodges Fellow 2023-24
PhD Candidate in Anthropological Sciences, Stony Brook University

Nicolás Wiggenhauser received his M.A. in Anthropological Sciences from Stony Brook University (NY). He is planning to defend his Ph.D. dissertation with the title “The Evolution of the Neural Basis of Learning and Behavioral Control in Primates and Humans” by May 2024. Nicolás is passionate about understanding the evolution of intelligence to discover how and why humans are so cognitively unique. At the intersection of Neuroscience, Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology, his research is centers on the evolutionary path and adaptive importance of the most complex biological structure ever studied in science: the brain.

In his doctoral project, Nicolás focuses on the evolution of the cortico-striatal system (CSS). This primordial neural network generates the behavioral repertoires (i.e., optimal decision-making, the construction of routines, and sensorimotor integration) that define human intelligence. In particular, his work focuses on the neuroanatomical variation of the CSS across the entire primate phylogeny (i.e., the genetic relationship among different species concerning their common ancestry). As specific subregions of the striatum mediate different modes of learning and stages of behavioral control, Nicolás quantifies the variation of the relative volumes of the three striatal nuclei —Nucleus accumbens, Caudate nucleus, and Putamen—to understand how these CSS-based behaviors have evolved in primates. With the implementation of cutting-edge phylogenetic comparative methods, he statistically models the changes in scaling and rates of evolution of functionally specific brain areas at different taxonomic levels.

Nicolás’s research attempts to profoundly impact the philosophy of orientation by explaining the evolution of decision-making, routines, and spatial navigation in different primate lineages by measuring the precise neuroanatomy of a critical neural network. This empirical and data-driven approach contributes a new meaning to our philosophical understanding of existence, conceiving of orientation as the cognitive outcome of evolution towards optimal adaptation. In doing so, Nicolás provides a scientific explanation of the evolutionary reasons how orientation is crucial for human existence, adaptation, and success.

Besides his academic career, Nicolás is highly enthusiastic about data visualization and science communication. He is trained to convey scientific information to different audiences in ways that are understandable, engaging, and supported by rigorous research. Moreover, he has worked for many years at Stony Brook University as a mentor and advocate for international students in the United States. In several leadership positions on campus, he as counsels students about career planning, negotiation, and post-graduation strategies.

You can learn more about Nicolás on his website.