Real-world environments are typically dynamic, complex, and multisensory in nature and require the support of top–down attention and memory mechanisms for us to be able to drive a car, make a shopping list, or pour a cup of coffee. Fundamental principles of perception and functional brain organization have been established by research utilizing well-controlled but simplified paradigms with basic stimuli. The last 30 years ushered a revolution in computational power, brain mapping, and signal processing techniques. Drawing on those theoretical and methodological advances, over the years, research has departed more and more from traditional, rigorous, and well-understood paradigms to directly investigate cognitive functions and their underlying brain mechanisms in real-world environments. These investigations typically address the role of one or, more recently, multiple attributes of real-world environments. Fundamental assumptions about perception, attention, or brain functional organization have been challenged—by studies adapting the traditional paradigms to emulate, for example, the multisensory nature or varying relevance of stimulation or dynamically changing task demands. Here, we present the state of the field within the emerging heterogeneous domain of real-world neuroscience. To be precise, the aim of this Special Focus is to bring together a variety of the emerging “real-world neuroscientific” approaches. These approaches differ in their principal aims, assumptions, or even definitions of “real-world neuroscience” research. Here, we showcase the commonalities and distinctive features of the different “real-world neuroscience” approaches. To do so, four early-career researchers and the speakers of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society 2017 Meeting symposium under the same title answer questions pertaining to the added value of such approaches in bringing us closer to accurate models of functional brain organization and cognitive functions.

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