Funded PhD studentships in the School of Psychology
You can find more information about potential PhD projects and funding opportunities (if available) on this page.
Our school has a large, vibrant, and highly collaborative community of PhD students and academic staff with good interdisciplinary links. Currently the School of Psychology has 80+ students registered for a PhD or studying for a DClinPsy. Students will have access to extensive, modern and well-equipped laboratory facilities supported by a dedicated team of technical staff, the newly constructed Brain Research & Imaging Centre (BRIC) as well a Baby- and SchoolLab. For more details of the school’s research activity, please visit our research pages and our individual staff pages.

Applications for ESRC South West Doctoral Training Partnership PhD studentships (1+3 years or 3 years) are now open. Application deadline is 13 January 2023. More information on the application process and required documents. We recommend that interested applicants get in touch with potential supervisors early to discuss their research proposal. For projects offered by members of the school, please see below.

Potential PhD topics in Cognition and Social Cognition

Developmental trajectories of social comparison and competitive attitudes. Dr Nadège Bault and Dr Elsa Fouragnan

A rich research tradition in sociology, social psychology and economics has demonstrated how concern for status strongly motivates human behaviour. Happiness and well-being are strongly affected by the comparison between the individual’s own income and the income of others. Individuals in dominant position use their status to secure privileged access to resources, such as food and mates. Therefore, social comparison is important for monitoring one’s social status and might emerge early during development. Recent research in cognitive neuroscience suggests that counterfactual and social comparison rely on different brain mechanisms and that the latter induces competition. Emotional responses elicited by social comparison (envy and gloating) engage the reward system as well as social cognition areas more than their private counterparts (regret and relief). We propose to investigate the developmental trajectory of social comparison and competitive behaviour. You will use monetary tasks/games, combined with neuroimaging methods to link interindividual differences in cortical development with attitudes toward social comparison and cooperative/competitive behaviour. Some experience with, or at least strong willingness to learn, computer programming (e.g. matlab, R, Python) is essential for this project. The use of computational models of decision making will be possible (and supported) depending on the student’s interest. You will have access to the school lab and to the brand new state-of-the-art human neuroimaging facility (Brain Research & Imaging Centre) of the University.


Testing models of explicit and implicit memory. Dr Chris Berry

Computational models are powerful tools for understanding human cognition, and their use has led to new, often counterintuitive, theoretical insights. Projects are available that combine computational modelling with behavioural experimentation to investigate the relation between explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) memory. Although the traditional view of explicit and implicit memory is that they are driven by distinct memory systems in the brain, numerous lines of research have converged on the view that memory systems may not divide so sharply on consciousness. Indeed, computational modelling approaches have shown that an alternative, single-system model explains numerous key findings thought to be indicative of distinct systems; it also makes predictions that can be verified empirically. This type of project would suit someone who has experience or interest in programming and has strong statistical/research methods skills. Applicants are advised to make contact to discuss the specific direction of the project before applying.


Social predictions in autism and schizophrenia. Dr Matt Hudson

Whilst autism and schizophrenia are easily distinguishable, they share remarkable similarities in the social difficulties that they encounter. However, it is not clear if the mechanisms that cause this are the same, or whether there are distinct causes that coincidently elicit the same difficulties. Recent predictive coding accounts of perception, whereby the brain generates predictions of what we will see to compare to what we actually observe, suggest that the predictions made by those with autism and schizophrenia may be different, and help us distinguish between them. Furthermore, making predictions about other people facilitates social interactions, and a different style of prediction may explain why people with autism and schizophrenia feel more comfortable interacting with others with the same condition. The aim of this project is therefore to employ predictive models of social perception to devise a behavioural test that is sensitive enough to easily distinguish between autism and schizophrenia, and to assess their social capacities in a more ecologically valid environment of real-world social situations that takes into account the people they are interacting with.


Envisioning the future – understanding the function of component processes. Dr Julie Ji 

The human capacity to envision novel future experiences via episodic simulation (sensory mental imagery-based mental representations of events) is theorised to confer evolutionary advantages due to its capacity to motivate and guide goal-directed behaviour as it allows us to predict what might happen, how we might feel about it, and how to approach/avoid desirable/undesirable future outcomes. However, key questions remain about the functional implications of its core components. This multi-component project aims to understand the impact of the following components on emotion, evaluative judgment, and motivation: a) self-generation (vs. viewing); b) temporal location (future vs. atemporal); c) perceptual vividness vs. episodic detail.


Theory protection in learning. Dr Peter Jones

When one event precedes another, we learn this relationship so that we can behave appropriately. A common assumption is that this learning is caused by prediction error, or the difference between our expectations and reality, with more prediction error resulting in more learning. However, recent data from experiments conducted in our lab cast doubt on this idea. In our experiments we changed the outcomes that followed certain cues. According to prediction error, learning should be greatest for cues whose outcomes changed the most. However, we observed the opposite result. Our results are more consistent with the idea of stubbornness, or ‘theory protection’, than with prediction error. We propose that, once participants learn what follows a cue, they are resistant to changing their beliefs. They therefore attribute unexpected outcomes to the cues that are most consistent with those outcomes, even though these will often be the cues that have the smallest prediction error. This project will examine this theory protection principle, to discover the circumstances in which it applies. This work is expected to have implications for a wide range of fields that use prediction error to explain how we understand the world.


Why and when do habits control our behaviour? Professor Chris Mitchell

Habits can be very useful. For example, an experienced car driver can change gear habitually, leaving plenty of mental capacity to monitor complex traffic conditions. However, habits sometimes to lead to errors, such as picking up a chocolate bar in the Newsagent when trying to lose weight. These kinds of errors – where our learning leads us to do things that we would prefer not to, and which feel outside of our control – allow important insights into our psychology. Important questions remain as to why this kind of automatic behaviour occurs, the situations in which it is most likely to be observed and who is most likely to be susceptible. This project would suit a student who has an interest in learning, memory or attention.


Autism, spatial navigation in real and virtual built environments, and brain connectivity. Dr Matt Roser, Dr Alejandro Reyes (architecture), Dr Alastair Smith

Autism spectrum conditions have been associated with a constellation of strengths and weaknesses within the visuospatial domain. One component that has received relatively little scientific attention is the difficulty that many individuals can have with everyday spatial navigation. Some empirical reports have identified the potential cognitive bases of these individual differences, although they have generally been based on relatively simple screen-based virtual environments. In this project, we will use state-of-the-art Immersive Media technologies to comprehensively explore navigation in autism. The work will focus on the documentation of realistic models of the built environment, including models from actual buildings and spaces constructed using long-range 3D scanning technologies. These environments will not only be used to provide a realistic and valid platform to experimentally characterise the range of abilities that contribute to differences in daily navigation, but also to test more applied questions of whether learning in realistic immersive environments can transfer to the real world. This will carry important ramifications for supporting difficulty and improving quality of life for some individuals. The project will also make use of brand-new facilities in Plymouth’s flagship Brain Research and Imaging Centre to examine neural connectivity (include diffusion imaging and white-matter tractography) in relation to navigational performance.


Getting lost in a virtual world. Dr Alastair Smith and Professor Chris Mitchell

Our health and wellbeing are dependent on our ability to set goals for ourselves, and to achieve those goals. For example, suppose you have secured a new job that is in a different part of town from where you have worked for the last five years. It is important that you are able to navigate your way efficiently to that new workplace on the first day. One way in which this might go wrong is that (anxious and distracted on your first day) you may accidentally drive to your old workplace. That is, a habit that has developed over five years might undermine your goal. We have recently developed a procedure to produce habitual behaviour of this kind in the laboratory. The current project is to extend the examination of these habitual “action slips” to the domain of navigation. Students will create virtual computer-based environments through which participants will be required to navigate to achieve certain goals. The research will examine when and why we are sometimes not in control of our behaviour, as a consequence of learned habits. The project will also relate navigational errors to the contents of the environment (e.g. landmarks, boundaries) in order to examine whether some environments or routes are more likely to engender habitual errors than others. This will have implications for the treatment of navigational impairments found in typical (e.g. ageing) and atypical (e.g. dementia, developmental conditions) populations.


Understanding human foraging behaviour. Dr Alastair Smith

Foraging is a fundamental behaviour for many species. In humans, it has even been typified as the context of our cognitive evolution, and many societies today still subsist on hunting and gathering. However, foraging behaviour is present in all societies, from searching a supermarket shelf to scouring your home for a lost set of keys. This activity is supported by a variety of psychological functions that include, perception, attention, memory, and decision making. Traditionally, psychologists have studied human search behaviour using the visual search paradigm, although this tends to constrain our understanding to simple two-dimensional spaces presented on a monitor. Advances in methodology now present exciting opportunities to create controlled three-dimensional search spaces for participants to explore, and this project will examine the psychological factors that support efficient environmental search behaviour. This can include explorations of environmental structure (e.g. shape, landmarks), statistical properties of the array (e.g. fruiting patterns, spatial likelihoods), and the individual differences that underlie search (e.g. working memory, autistic traits). Experiments could make use of Plymouth’s world-class environmental simulation capabilities, and there may also be the opportunity to address some of these issues in patients who have sustained neurological damage, and to look at changes in search behaviour associated with typical ageing.


Memory: Is forgetting an adaptive mechanism? Dr Michael Verde

Theories of memory have traditionally viewed forgetting as a negative consequence of limitations of the memory system. Anderson’s (2003) retrieval inhibition theory proposes that, on the contrary, forgetting is adaptive and the ability to suppress certain memories is beneficial to the normal function of the memory system. This research will use a range of empirical paradigms and quantitative modelling techniques to investigate the factors that contribute to forgetting, including interference from other memories, conscious inhibition, and context change. Although the focus is on basic research, there is scope for investigating the implications of inhibition and forgetting in applied areas. For example, are emotional or traumatic memories more difficult or easy to suppress? Does suppressing irrelevant information facilitate problem-solving? In revising educational materials, does the strategic inhibition of knowledge actually, improve long-term learning?


Effective learning through testing: The testing effect in basic and applied research. Dr Michael Verde

A great deal of recent interest has focused on the role of testing in learning. Both basic and applied research suggests that revising information through active retrieval is one of the most effective ways to promote long term retention (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006; Roediger & Pyc, 2012). This research project has two goals. The first is to investigate the factors that make testing such an effective method of revision. We will consider theories of associative strengthening, information integration, and contextual reinstatement. The second goal is to apply our findings to ecologically valid materials and settings such as science education. This project has strong potential for interdisciplinary work with researchers in education and biology.


Imagination and lying. Dr Clare Walsh

When we think about past events, we often reflect on how things might have happened differently, for example, if I had left home earlier, I might have caught the train. This mental simulation of alternatives to the past is known as counterfactual thinking. The aim of this project is to examine the idea that this process may also be an important part of how people generate lies. Like counterfactual thinking, lying involves making minimal changes to past events and these changes should be consistent with other events that have happened. Lying therefore also requires keeping in mind what the listener knows to be true. The project will examine the processes underlying the generation of lies and whether as a result, some lies are easier than others to generate.


Imagination, judgements and emotions. Dr Clare Walsh

When we reflect on past events, we frequently reflect on how things might have happened differently. We might imagine that things could have turned out better, for example, if I had been paying attention, I wouldn’t have tripped or instead that they could have turned out worse, e.g., I am lucky that I didn’t break my arm. These alternatives shape how we feel about events that have happened and the judgements that we make about them, for example, where we place responsibility or blame. They can also influence decisions about how to behave in the future. This project will therefore examine the types of thoughts that people imagine and their consequences.


Learning object categories in biological and non-biological machines. Professor Andy Wills

Since around 2014, there have been substantial advances in Artificial Intelligence, with cutting-edge machines now able to classify objects with a level of accuracy that some engineers describe as 'human like'. How well founded are these claims of human-level performance on such tasks? And to what extent are these machines – whose designs are often inspired by neuroscience – good models of human behaviour? Some experience with, or at least strong willingness to learn, computer programming (e.g. R, Python, or C++) is essential for this project. Use of neuroscience methodologies (e.g. eye-tracking, EEG, fMRI) may be possible, depending on your interests.


Studying climate change cognition using a game-based approach. Dr Jan K. Woike and Dr Patricia Kanngiesser

Climate change is an unprecedented global threat and understanding the dynamics involved in climate change is cognitively challenging. This project sets out to explore climate change cognition such as understanding exponential dynamics, social dilemmas, and their interplay using a game-based approach. It focuses on how people make decisions in a complex environment and which interventions can support mitigating actions. We have recently used a similar game-based approach to study decision making in a pandemic-like simulation (Woike et al., 2022). This project is ideal for someone who enjoys the conceptual and technical development of online games and has experience with statistical analyses.

Exploring experimental ethics. Dr Jan K. Woike

Many of the decisions we make and the actions we take or fail to take impact others directly or indirectly. Whether intended or not, our actions may help or harm others and have the potential for shaping reactions and even complex chain reactions. How do we navigate complex social environments, how do we motivate and justify decisions with consequences for others? Experimental ethics in this project combines empirical methods from experimental economics and experimental philosophy to study decision making and interaction with moral implications. Possible topics include: consequences of cooperation and competition, distributive justice, honesty and cheating, promises and threats, social dilemmas, collective action, rivalry, negotiation and conflict escalation. Programming skills would be an asset, and the project would be ideal for students with an interest in (1) developing and analyzing interactive online games and experiments and (2) engaging with literature across different disciplines (psychology, philosophy, and economics).

Potential PhD topics in Developmental Psychology

Lexical biases in bilingual infants and toddlers Professor Caroline Floccia

From the age of 8 months, French-learning babies demonstrate a puzzling "consonant bias" when hearing words. It means that they pay more attention to consonant sounds to encode words, and seem to neglect vowel sounds. This bias has also been observed in Spanish and Italian. In contrast, British babies do not show such a bias, and seem to pay an equal attention to consonants and vowels, at least until 30 months. In adulthood, this bias is found in both French and English listeners. The purpose of this bias would be to optimise the search for words in the mental lexicon, but why do English babies take much longer to acquire it? Is this bias attentional, or does it result from modifications of perceptual processing for different types of sounds? Is it discovered through phonology, or is it the by-product of lexical regularities? In this project, I propose to address these questions by examining what happens in bilingual infants and toddlers who learn English and French for example. How will the consonant bias be acquired in that case? Will exposure to French boost the emergence of the bias in English? Or is the bias language-specific? Tasks such as word mispronunciations and word learning tasks will be used in bilingual and monolingual children, taking advantage of recent development of online eyetracking techniques during the pandemic. The candidate is expected to be an enthusiastic learner or user of testing platforms like Gorilla or PsychoPi (no previous experience is required though). A clear enhanced DBS check will be requested.  

The development of political attitudes in children. Professor Jeremy Goslin

Political attitudes are central to our moral beliefs about the world, but when and where do we acquire these attitudes? It has long been suggested that children largely inherit the political beliefs of their parents, and yet the development of the political attitudes of young children, and how these attitudes subsequently shape our early moral outlook remains a mystery. This project will draw upon techniques used in experimental psychology and behavioural economics to make an experimental investigation that explores the relationship between the political beliefs of parents and the implicit attitudes of their children to economic decision making, inequality, and sharing. A systematic examination of children over the course of development (from 3–14) will allow an understanding of how children develop politically, and how this affects their behaviour and moral interpretations of society.


The development of cooperation in collective action problems. Dr Patricia Kanngiesser

Collective action problems are at the heart of many of the most challenging problems of our time be it the current pandemic, climate change, or scarce resources. Collective action problems arise when individual interests are in conflict with group interests and although cooperation would be beneficial for everyone, it can break down due to free-riders trying to maximize their own benefits. Developmental studies can help to shed light on factors that influence cooperation such as social norms and values that are acquired during childhood. These insights could also be leveraged to develop educational tools (e.g. games and simulations) to foster better understanding of collective action problems. Methods would primarily include behavioural experiments with children and adolescents in the lab/schools/online and there may be opportunities to conduct cross-cultural work. The exact shape and scope of the PhD project would depend on students’ interests. Candidates with an interest to develop online experiments/games are particularly welcome.


Social interactions, social goals, and eye-gaze. Dr Patricia Kanngiesser and Dr Esther Chen

We daily interact with others when we take a walk together, complete a task or play in a sports team. Some of these interactions will be cooperative, others competitive, and in some situations we will just do things in parallel without any shared (or opposing) goal. How does our ability to interact with others develop and do children already take different goals into account? In this project, we plan to look at how goals structure children's social interactions on the micro-level by analyzing their eye-gaze behaviour through ego-centric eye-tracking. This project is ideal for someone who is interested in using eye-tracking in interactive social settings. 

Potential PhD topics in Health, Applied, and Social Psychology

Body Compassion. Dr Nicholas Troop

Body compassion refers to self-compassion directed to one’s own body. It incorporates elements of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindful awareness, as well as elements of sensitivity to body-related distress, pain and suffering, and the motivation and ability to combat this. We have previously developed measures of body compassion and found that it is related to a number of outcomes such as eating concerns, body shame and wellbeing in people in a range of contexts and with a range of conditions. Furthermore, simple body compassion expressive writing exercises can improve mood, body image and physical activity with effects lasting 1–3 months. The aim of this PhD is two-fold: the first aim is to further develop other strategies to improve body compassion (such as guided imagery); the second aim, because body compassion relates to a number of health-related outcomes, is to examine whether a single common intervention (addressing body compassion) can impact on multiple outcomes simultaneously. There is a possibility for the PhD candidate to develop these studies in contexts or conditions for which they have a particular interest and/or to be guided by previous research by the supervisor. 


Psychological factors in women's health. Dr Alison Bacon and Dr Alyson Norman

We welcome proposals for novel research which will increase understanding of women’s health and which can potentially help to improve health outcomes longer term. Topics for investigation might include trauma, childhood experiences, personality, coping, stress, resilience, attachment, or relationships with health professionals. Work focussed on specific health conditions is also of interest. These are just examples and we are open to other suggestions. While projects may include aspects of mental health, the primary focus would be on physical health. We are happy to support research using psychometric or qualitative methods, or a combination of the two.


Understanding risk and expertise in multidisciplinary clinical teams. Dr Ben Whalley and Dr Pete Keohane

Experts make accurate predictions and successful interventions in complex environments. Research on expert judgement strongly suggests that, to develop expertise, the environment in which professionals operate must have ‘high validity’: experts require information that is genuinely predictive of important outcomes, and accurate feedback to evaluate decisions and actions. On both counts clinical psychologists are at a disadvantage: because psychological distress is complex and multiply caused clinicians face real challenges in extracting and acting-on regularities in a ‘noisy’ system. Numerous studies show that clinical experts struggle to make accurate predictions and decisions in important domains (e.g. suicide risk, risk of harms in psychosis). This is sometimes taken as evidence that clinical psychologists lack true expertise, but we start from the position that the glass is half-full. Clinical decisions are complex, and humans make mistakes of memory and reasoning. But clinical psychologists probably do gain expertise through practice: meta-analyses show psychotherapy is effective, and psychological perspective and techniques (biopsychosocial model, formulation) are viewed as useful by other professionals. However, we are interested to understand why effective techniques to improve expert decision making are not widely adopted in clinical psychology and what can be done about it. The project will recruit professionals in MDTs and service users in acute adult and forensic settings, crisis services, and related outpatient adult services. We will (likely) adopt a mixed-methods approach, combining qualitative analysis of talk in MDTs with structured interviews and surveys. Bayesian elicitation methods and related quantitative methods will be used to characterise the expectations – and agreement in expectations – among MDT members, and explore how this relates to the decision making process.


Understanding the role of imagination in tackling environmental issues and/or promoting human health and wellbeing. Dr Kayleigh Wyles, Dr Julie Ji and Professor Jackie Andrade

The main premise of this PhD is to pull together two areas of Psychology to understand and promote a healthy world to live in: 1) Environmental Psychology, extending theories and empirical evidence on our relationships with the physical environment around us, and 2) Mental simulation, the cognitive capacity to simulate novel or hypothetical experiences via the imagination. This PhD aims to explore how imagination-based mental simulation may augment our engagements with the physical world. This could go in one of two directions: how it impacts the environment’s health or how it impacts our own health and wellbeing. First, to investigate the role of imagination in tackling environmental issues, this PhD could examine to what extent imagination-based mental simulation can be used to motivate pro-environmental behaviours. For example, by manipulating the levels of mental simulation (e.g. asking people to imagine a scenario vs. providing external stimuli to support and guide that imagination, such as through Virtual Reality, VR), this PhD could examine whether these different types of interactions can strengthen a person’s connectedness and/or commitment to protecting the natural world through reduce the psychological distance between the spectator (the individual) and the victim (wildlife and/or natural environments). The second alternative direction would be to investigate the role of imagination in promoting human health and wellbeing. Vast amount of research has shown that spending time in nature or even watching a natural scene on a computer can improve a person’s mood and overall wellbeing. Can the imagination augment the wellbeing benefits of nature exposure, such as through extending the experience via mental simulation, or a combination of mental simulation and actual/virtual exposure?

Potential PhD topics in Human Neuroscience

Functional parcellation and characterization of human auditory cortex using multimodal imaging. Dr Julien Besle

The organization of the human into functionally distinct cortical areas that undertake different cognitive operations is not well understood. Previous work using non-invasive neuroimaging tools, such as functional or structural MRI, to identify human auditory cortical areas in individual participants, has shown that the functional organization of the human auditory cortex differs from that of other non-human primates (Besle et al., 2019), but the exact location and function of different auditory cortical areas remains unclear. PhD project topics will pursue this line of inquiry along one or several of the following axes (or contact me if you have your own suggestion for research questions on perception in the auditory or other sensory modalities):

1. Improving non-invasive methods for parcellating functionally-distinct auditory cortical areas in individual participants: functional markers used previously to differentiate between auditory cortical areas (frequency preference, frequency selectivity and intracortical myelin content) have proved insufficient for a complete mapping of human auditory cortex. This project will explore the use of alternative non-invasive measurements, including fMRI mapping of other topographically-organized acoustic features and connectivity-based parcellation from diffusion-weighted or resting-stage functional MRI data.  

2. Functional role of identified auditory cortical areas in auditory perception: the ability to identify the location of auditory areas in individual human participants opens new avenues for exploring the role of these areas in auditory perception. Performance in psychoacoustics tasks will be correlated to the functional features of different auditory cortical areas to study the contribution of each area to specific cognitive operations involved in auditory perception.

Projects will combine data acquisition using one or several neuroimaging modalities, psychophysical measurements, state-of the art analysis techniques and/or computational modelling approaches. Experience with (or a strong interest to learn) computer programming is highly desirable. Successful candidates will have access to the school lab and to the brand new state-of-the-art human neuroimaging facility (BRIC). Applicants are advised to make contact to discuss the specific direction of the project before applying.


Using brain imaging and brain stimulation to see what’s in your mind. Dr Giorgio Ganis

Visual mental imagery is our ability to conjure visual scenarios in our mind in the absence of actual visual stimuli in the environment. This ability plays a critical role in many cognitive skills and mental disorders and is pervasive in our mental life. Current theories propose that visual mental imagery is carried out in our brain by means of top-down processes that reactivate neural representations similar to those engaged during visual perception at multiple levels in the visual hierarchy. However, the details of such processes are unclear. For example, some recent EEG evidence using multivariate analyses has suggested that these top-down processes may be conveyed by oscillations in the alpha range, whereas other EEG evidence has implicated oscillations in the gamma and theta ranges. This project aims to use a set of rigorous visual mental imagery tasks to shed light on the details of these top-down processes using multivariate analyses on a combination of behavioural, EEG, brain stimulation, and fMRI measures.


The role of response inhibition and response conflict in deception. Dr Giorgio Ganis

Deception is defined as an attempt to convince someone else of something the liar believes to be untrue. Much research on deception has focused on the idea that telling a lie results both in response conflict and in the inhibition of the corresponding truthful response. Initial electrophysiological findings were consistent with this idea, but they did not distinguish between response conflict and inhibition. More importantly, they were contaminated by serious experimental confounds. This project will use cognitive neuroscience methods (EEG, brain stimulation, and fMRI) and theories to investigate the timecourse of response conflict and inhibition during deceptive interactions. Furthermore, it will develop ecologically valid paradigms and novel analysis techniques to enable the use of this information to optimize deception detection methods.


Passing the neuroscience of tool use to robots. Professor Jeremy Goslin

In embodied models of cognition our representations of objects are formed around the motor programs used to manipulate them. This means that not only do we automatically prepare relevant actions when viewing objects, but also that our actions modulate our perception of our environment and those interacting within it. Robots with a similar embodied architecture should also benefit from a more seamless sensory-motor integration. In this project electrophysiological brain imaging techniques will be used in virtual reality environments to examine how object-based affordances help us to learn and manipulate tools. This new understanding will then be used to directly inform interactive models of human-robot object manipulation and collaboration. 

Brain Rhythms as Predictors of Cognitive and Behavioural Performance. Professor Stephen Hall

Brain rhythms or oscillations have been measured in the human brain for more than a century. Oscillations are present across the brain and underpin communication within and between brain areas. Changes in power, frequency and connectivity accompany a wide range of cognitive and behavioural processes and differences are observed across the lifespan and in neurological and mental health disorders. The aim of this PhD is to look beyond these basic brain rhythm features, to explore wider characteristics of these signals as markers of performance across a range of cognitive and behavioural processes.

We will explore how distinct features of brain signals govern the interaction between sensory systems and influence variance in decision-making, learning and performance. The PhD will be based at the Brain Research & Imaging Centre (BRIC) and will make use of multimodal neuroimaging (e.g. fMRI, EEG) to measure brain signals, brain stimulation (e.g. TMS) to manipulate brain function and cognitive and behavioural methods to measure performance.


Ongoing thoughts, human cognition, and brain architecture. Dr Nerissa Ho

Human existence depends on the capacity to experience things happening in our lives, as denoted in René Descartes’ famous quote, “I think, therefore I am”. From neuroscientists’ perspective, experiences exist only if they can be represented in the brain, and these representations are commonly referred to as ‘trains of thought’. Past studies of ongoing experiences mostly focused on mind-wandering by examining thoughts that are unrelated to the performing task. However, mind-wandering is simply the nature of the human brain. In fact, our thoughts continuously drift to and from the external and internal world, and between diverse events. And mind-wandering is not just about task-unrelated thoughts, instead, it encompasses a much wider variety of experiences, including thoughts that are stimulus-independent, unintentional, meandering, and unguided. Common to this family of thoughts is that they all rely on the capacity to process information decoupled from ties of external stimulation, an important aspect of human experience known as introspection. Importantly, there is increasing evidence showing that mind-wandering is associated with both beneficial processes, such as goal-directed thinking, planning, creativity, and intelligence, as well as processes linked with negative outcomes such as impaired task performance, disruptions to learning and affective dysfunction. Together, they suggest the prevailing task-negativity account of mind-wandering is simply inadequate for explaining the complexity and richness of the experiences and mechanisms underpinning mind-wandering. Our project aims to extend our knowledge of ongoing thoughts to better understand how these thoughts reflect human cognition, based on the strategy of triangulation to examine self-report data with both behavioural and neuroimaging evidence. Specifically, we will examine how patterns of ongoing thought, their content, form, intentionality, emotionality, task-relatedness, relationship with external stimuli and so on, are related to factors such as brain architecture and activation patterns, environmental and task contexts, as well as cognitive performance indicators and other personal characteristics. Ultimately, we would hope to apply our understanding of the neurocognitive underpinnings of ongoing thought patterns, together with their impacts on cognitive and emotional experiences, in order to translate into applications in the clinical and ageing domains.


The ageing brain – structural degeneration and functional consequences. Dr Matt Roser 

We have previously demonstrated, in studies of callosotomy patients (Roser et al., 2011) and using functional MRI (fMRI) (Fugelsang, Roser et al., 2005) that the two cerebral hemispheres make different contributions to the perception of causality in object interactions and to the drawing of inferences about causality. Furthermore, we have shown (Linnet & Roser, 2012) that ageing (>65 years) has deleterious effects upon behavioural processes that depend on interhemispheric brain connectivity and (Roser et al., 2012) that indices of structural connectivity are related to behavioural performance in young adults. This project proposes that age-related decline in fundamental processes of perception, learning, and reasoning will be partly explicable by the degeneration of white-matter pathways in the brain, particularly between the two cerebral hemispheres and between anterior-posterior regions, and that this will be reflected in patterns of functional-network activity across the brain. We predict that deficits (relative to young adults) in behavioural performance will be most marked in those processes that depend on widely-distributed networks of activity and which are vulnerable to disruption by age-related degeneration of microstructural connectivity. We will use our established paradigms for investigating causal perception, causal and real-world reasoning, observational learning and hypothesis generation, with young adults, healthy-aged participants, and patients with early-stage dementia while recording brain activity using fMRI and brain microstructural connectivity using diffusion MRI. The same cohort will undertake several experimental tasks, over two one-hour long scanning sessions, so as to facilitate the cross-paradigm meta-analysis of the effect of age-related structural degeneration upon distributed brain processes. Further behavioural testing and characterization of dementia status will be conducted outside the scanner. Analyses of distributed brain function (as in Karuza…Roser, et al., 2017) will be informed by MRI indices of microstructural connectivity. The project will make use of brand-new facilities in Plymouth’s flagship Brain Research and Imaging Centre to examine neural connectivity (including diffusion imaging and white-matter tractography) in relation to navigational performance. Some experience with computer programming (e.g. matlab, R, Python) and MRI analysis is essential for this project.