Funded PhD studentships in the School of Psychology

Competitive Funded PhD studentships, 1 October and 1 April 2022 start

The Faculty of Health is offering six PhD studentships, and as part of the South West Doctoral Training Partnership, the school can nominate candidates for the ESRC funded studentships to be based at the institutions of University of Bath, University of Bristol, University of Exeter, Plymouth University and University of West of England;  starting in October 2022. The School of Psychology is also offering a studentship to start on 1 April 2022.

This is an exciting chance to be part of a large, vibrant, 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 and 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 (

Choosing a project

A range of potential projects and supervisors can be found below. Research can be conducted in any of the specialist areas of research supported by the School, which include cognition, learning, development, emotion, health, clinical psychology, social psychology, and neuroscience. Candidates are strongly encouraged to discuss their proposal/plans with their intended supervisor(s). Please note that the School can only consider proposals in areas in which we have expertise to supervise a topic. Further details about research in our school and our academic staff are available from our web pages.


Potential PhD topics in Health, Applied, and Social Psychology

Health implications following Covid-19. Dr Alison Bacon and Dr Alyson Norman

  • The 2020-21 Covid-19 pandemic has been the most notable public health event in many people’s living memory. It is now acknowledged that the aftereffects will last for some considerable time and recent reports have suggested that Covid may become an endemic disease, one we have to adapt to and live with as we do seasonal flu. From a psychological perspective, a good deal of research continues to focus on the ongoing mental health implications however, in a post-pandemic world, there are likely to be consequences for physical health and wellbeing as well. Understanding the pandemic-related psychological factors underlying these consequences is vital if we are to offer appropriate support. This PhD will investigate psychological factors in ongoing health implications of the pandemic as people try to adapt to the “new normal”. Some possible examples of such factors are changes in stress responses, health anxiety, poor coping or post-traumatic stress symptoms. Effects on people with chronic health conditions could be considered, as could health inequalities and/or the psychological implications of long-covid. Within this broad remit, the focus of the PhD can be flexible to fit the interests of the student (within the boundaries of staff expertise). The PhD is likely to involve a mix of quantitative (survey based) methods and qualitative research (interviews and/or focus groups).  There is a possibility of incorporating lab-based biometric measures depending on the focus of the studies and ongoing social distancing regulations.  

Humour and social relationships. Dr Sonja Heintz

  • Our social lives frequently entail laughter, jokes, irony, and banter. Humour is also regarded as one of the most desirable traits we value in other people. Theories and research propose that humour can either act as a “social lubricant” or as a means of showing our superiority to others. Despite its ubiquity, our understanding on the role of different kinds (or styles) of humour in social relationships is yet poorly understood. This project contributes to a more holistic description and explanation of the role that humour plays in different types of social relationships (e.g., romantic partners, friends, family, colleagues and supervisors). This includes perspectives from both the sender and receiver of the humorous communication, which can be assessed using different methods (e.g., self- and other-reports, behaviour observations, ecological momentary assessment and daily diaries). This project would suit a student who has an interest in social psychology, individual differences or positive psychology.

 Bereavement in families. Dr Jacqui Stedmon and  Dr Edith Steffen 

  • Bereavement in young people is an under researched topic, and in particular has not been explored or understood in relation to family systems.  It is a particularly sensitive area, and we know from clinical practice and exploratory research projects that some children cope with bereavement better than others. Further, we have already found a possible relationship to the child’s attachment style. However, we do not as yet know how families manage bereavement together, and how different attachment styles within families might impact on how they are able to manage bereavement. The proposed research project would be to explore this in further detail. The study would be mixed methods including the collection of qualitative and quantitative data to explore and compare how people narrate their experiences of bereavement, how this relates to attachment styles and patterns as well as standardised measures of coping and trauma.  This is a chance for the applicant to gain from a rich research environment within the Clinical Psychology department in Plymouth, where there is considerable expertise available to support the candidate in developing expertise in attachment, narrative methods and both clinically and research-based understandings of bereaved young people.

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

The role of environmental imagery in potentially strengthening nature connectedness. Dr Kayleigh Wyles, Professor Jackie Andrade, and Dr Isabel Richter

  • We rely on our eyes to make sense of the world. Visualisations are a powerful tool used for persuasion and to encourage behaviour change. In this project, we would like to investigate if/how the power of visualisation can be used for environmental conservation, for example, can it strengthen a person’s connectedness to the natural world and/or reduce the psychological distance between the spectator (the individual) and the victim (wildlife and/or natural environments), and in turn, does this influence our behaviour? Via news outlets, TV and social media, we are confronted with environmental imagery daily. What we do not know so far, is how these images affect our feeling and perceptions about the natural world (i.e. nature connectedness, a concept measuring people’s emotional connection to the natural world) and our overall behaviour.
  • Potential pathways this PhD can take are:
  • 1) exploring the effects and potential differences between physical (in form of prints or screen based) and mental imagery (evoked by audio or text prompts) of nature and wildlife on nature connectedness, behaviour, and behavioural intentions; mainly focusing on the dimension of imagery and messaging
  • 2) exploring the effects and potential differences between tropical species vs. familiar species, tropical regions vs. regions close to home on nature connectedness, behaviour, and behavioural intentions; integration of the dimension of psychological distance
  • 3) exploring the effects and potential differences between a video-based experience with wildlife on nature connectedness, behaviour, and behavioural intentions compared to a real-life touristic wildlife experience (e.g. whale watching or seal safari); integration of the dimension of wildlife tourism
  • This project will investigate one of the above mentioned topics (or an alteration/combination of them) using both experimental and explorative designs (i.e. use of qualitative and quantitative methods like interviews or questionnaire surveys).

Grief and bereavement experiences in a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic group: A pluralistic qualitative study Dr Edith Steffen and Dr Stephen Minton

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has put grief and bereavement on the public agenda; in addition to this, the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities has been highlighted. It has also been observed that bereaved people from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic communities may be more likely to be diagnosed with Prolonged Grief Disorder. This has been partially explained by the greater stresses (due to structural inequalities) already experienced by members of these communities, and also by societal tendencies (deriving from a Western medical-model approach to grief) to pathologise grief expressions that may not fit in with dominant cultural expectations. There is little research to date that has looked at how people from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic communities may experience grief and bereavement within the various cultural and societal contexts they are situated in. A pluralistic qualitative project is suggested, with data collected in one specific community (in accordance with the student’s interests) from multiple sources such as focus groups and social media, and through individual interviews with photo elicitation. The data would then be subjected to two separate qualitative analyses, the first one taking an experiential-phenomenological perspective on the data, the second one taking a discursive perspective. This dual analytic lens would allow for accounts of first-hand experiences to feed directly into the findings, as well as permitting for broader discursive constructions to be identified, which can reveal how oppression in minority grief may operate, as well as how it may be resisted. A participatory element could be woven into the research throughout to ensure participation from experts-by-experience not only in the provision of data, but also in their interpretation and in the communication of the findings.

Potential PhD topics in Developmental Psychology

Language in the “wild” – features of language input and its coupling with social and emotional cues. Dr Rana Abu-Zhaya and Professor Caroline Floccia

  • Infants learning their native language are exposed to it from birth through meaningful social interactions with their caregivers. Within these interactions, language is coupled with social and emotional cues rendering the infant-directed input highly multimodal and multi-sensory. The ways in which we package this rich input to infants are bound by cultural norms, just like our socialization habits and how we create emotional bonds. Yet, most of our current theories on language acquisition are not only driven by a historical focus on the unimodal features of infant-directed speech but are also heavily based on research conducted on infants growing up in WEIRD (Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) communities representing only a small portion of infants worldwide. Hence, the goal of this project is to investigate the multimodal, multi-sensory nature of infant-directed language input, and how features of this input 1) change with development, 2) are influenced by cultural background, and 3) influence the developmental trajectory of language acquisition. While the scientific focus of this project and the exact research questions will depend on the preferences of the candidate, the goal is to come up with a series of small projects that can contribute to informing theories on language development and to a more holistic, culturally sensitive approach to the study of language input. The candidate will have access to a wide array of research methodologies, from corpus studies (using data collected by other scientists, as those available in Databrary and CHILDES) to infant-friendly research paradigms available at the Plymouth Babylab, along with online-based research methods.

Learning from multimodal language input. Dr Rana Abu-Zhaya and Professor Caroline Floccia

  • Recent decades of research have shown that statistical learning (the ability to perceive and learn recurring patterns from the input) is a powerful mechanism that infants utilize in extracting patterns from simple auditory and visual inputs. Yet, it is unclear whether statistical learning abilities scale up to real world input. One important reason for this lack of clarity stems from the fact that infants’ language environments are not unimodal and are rich with a variety of cues (e.g., visual, tactile, gestural…) that are combined in a multitude of ways that are not always predictable. Hence, this project will focus on designing and conducting a series of experiments that will examine how infants extract recurring patterns from a complex multimodal input, and what mechanisms do they use to segment the speech signal in the face of such complexity. The candidate will have access to a wide array of infant-friendly research paradigms available at the Plymouth Babylab, along with online-based research methods.

The development of political attitudes in children. Dr 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 conformity and social innovation in children and adolescents. Dr Patricia Kanngiesser and Dr Jaysan Charlesford

  • Social norms structure daily life by determining how one ought or ought not to behave. From early on in development, children learn from others around them and begin to conform to the social norms of their group. However, conformity also poses a conundrum: while it allows children to act efficiently within existing sets of norms, it also narrows the available space for social experimentation and change. This project will therefore investigate the tension between conformity and social innovation. Possible avenues could include the role of dissent, minority influences, or how judgements about others’ (non-)conformity depend on ethnicity/gender. Methods would primarily include behavioural experiments with children and adolescents in the lab/schools/online but could be supplemented by structured observations or other suitable methods. There may be opportunities to conduct cross-cultural work. The exact shape and scope of the PhD project would depend on students’ interests.

Mum and Dad have a different accent when they speak to me: how do I make sense of English words?  Professor Caroline Floccia

  • The effect of speech variability on language learning is uncertain. On one hand short-term exposure seems to be helping young infants to retrieve phonological categories, as shown in lab-based word learning tasks. On the other hand, long-term exposure to variability doesn't seem to have the same facilitatory effect at all, and this is mainly coming from word recognition data comparing children exposed to multiple versus one accent at home. Understanding the role of variability in language learning is very important to determine the kind of processes that children use to build their phonological/lexical systems. In this project, you will use a combination of head-turn preference paradigm and eye-tracking preferential looking tasks to investigate the time course of development of word recognition and learning in young infants and toddlers, as a function of their linguistic background (mono- versus multi-accent exposure). You will work within the Plymouth Babylab, a unique research facility at the University of Plymouth which invites around 600 families a year to take part in psychology studies. A clear enhanced DBS check will be requested.

Language and Theory of Mind in Development Dr Steven Samuel and Dr Rana Abu-Zhaya

  •  For many scholars the two cognitive abilities that most fundamentally divide humans from other animals are language and theory of mind (the ability to understand others' mental states, such as their beliefs). Impairments in either of these abilities can have a significant impact on an individuals' ability to socialise and interact with others. It has not gone unnoticed that these faculties are also quite complementary: it would be difficult to learn language if we could not understand what someone meant, and it would be difficult to appreciate that others have rich and externally unobservable mental lives if they were unable to communicate this through language. We would like to invite PhD candidates who are interested in investigating the relationships between language and theory of mind in development. Potential topics include: language as a form of representing ('coding') others' beliefs; the influence of bilingualism on theory of mind; the parallel development of theory of mind and language; cross-linguistic effects on theory of mind development; theory of mind in children with perceptual impairments; the evolution of theory of mind and language. The candidate will be able to use one or both of the Plymouth Babylab and can benefit from links with local schools. Development of new methods to test these research questions is also welcome.

How to apply

Enquiries about projects and supervisors may be sent to Dr Patricia Kanngiesser, Postgraduate tutor (

The closing date for the ESRC-SWDTP studentships (for an October 2022 start) is Friday, 14 January 2022 (noon, UK time). For details on the application process, see here:

The closing date for School of Psychology studentship (for an April 2022 start) is Sunday, 16 January (midnight, UK time). Follow the link to apply. Please clearly state that you are applying for a PhD studentship within the School of Psychology. You will need to submit a CV, transcripts, details of two academic referees, and a research proposal (1000 words) with your application. Your research proposal should contain a short review of relevant literature, research questions/hypotheses, overview of methods, and a time plan (all included in the word count; max. 1000 words). The proposal should also name the suggested supervisor(s) and include a reference list (not included in the word count).

The closing date for the Faculty of Health studentships (for an October 2022 start) is 1 February 2022 (midnight, UK time). For these studentships applications can only be made by the supervisor, not by students.

The University of Plymouth is committed to equality of opportunity, promoting a diverse and inclusive culture, demonstrated through our commitment to the gender equality Athena SWAN Charter and as a Stonewall diversity champion. Whilst all applicants will be judged on merit alone, we particularly welcome applications from groups currently under-represented, for example Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic groups.

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.

The role of the self in cognition. Dr Marius Golubickis

  • As far as essential psychological constructs go, the self occupies a position near the top of the list. Pervading core aspects of daily life, it guides cognition, shapes behavioural elicitation, and provides coherence and continuity to the flux of subjective experience. The message that emerges from decades of research on this topic is clear — the self exerts a potent influence on information processing (i.e., egocentric-like predisposition). Recent research has highlighted the beneficial effects of self-referential processing on decision-making (i.e., the self-prioritization effect; a tendency to make judgements in favour of oneself). However, the extent and origin of this self-prioritization effect is unclear. Accordingly, this project will focus on 1) identifying the conditions under which self-relevance influences information processing and the mechanisms that underpin self-prioritization using computational modelling techniques, 2) explore how the task performance (i.e., decision-making, learning) is influenced by prior knowledge and sensory experiences and 3) identify the aspects of personality (e.g., altruism, narcissism, neuroticism) that would modulate the self-bias.

The curious effect of pre-testing on memory. Professor Tim Hollins, Professor Chris Mitchell, Dr Giorgio Ganis and Professor Stephen Hall

  • The aim of this PhD project is to bring together two recent research strands in human memory, both of which have involved memory for the answers to general knowledge questions. One strand has shown that attempting to answer an unfamiliar general knowledge question before learning the answer leads to better memory than just studying the question and answer together (the pre-testing effect). The other strand has investigated the effects of curiosity for different general knowledge facts. People have better memory for the answers to questions that elicit high curiosity (relative to low), regardless of the rewards associated with learning the facts (the curiosity effect). Moreover, this work shows that a state of curiosity: a) is associated with activation in brain regions associated with memory and reward, and b) can also lead to better memory of incidentally encountered material that has nothing to do with the general knowledge fact. This PhD will explore whether the pre-testing effect arises through the mechanism of curiosity, using both behavioural and neuroscientific methods. It will use techniques such as fMRI, EEG and TMS to determine whether pre-testing engages the same regions and patterns of brain activity associated with curiosity, and whether it shows the same incidental memory benefits.

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 5 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 5 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.

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).

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.

Potential PhD topics in Human Neuroscience

Using brain imaging and brain stimulation to see what’s inyour 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 out 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. Dr 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. 

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.

Investigating neural and perceptual correlates of virtual reality-induced analgesia in human surrogate pain models. Dr Sam Hughes and Dr Elsa Fouragnan

  • Exposure to immersive 360° virtual reality (VR) environments has been shown to produce analgesic effects in both experimental and clinical pain states. However, the top-down analgesic mechanisms are still poorly understood. Our most recent research has shown that activity within endogenous pain modulation systems underpins VR-induced analgesia, which may help to reduce altered nociceptive processing seen during chronic pain states. This PhD project will expand on these findings; you will use a combination of human surrogate pain models, neurophysiology, quantitative sensory testing (QST) and electroencephalography (EEG) to dissect neural and perceptual correlates of VR-induced analgesia during different pain states (e.g. acute, tonic and sensitised pain processing). This research will be carried out at the new Brain Research and Imaging Centre (BRIC) in the School of Psychology and will provide further mechanism-driven evidence on how best to use VR in chronic pain patients. Experience in neurophysiological techniques and programming would be an advantage.

Pain and mental health: a multimodal investigation into the effects of anxiety on central pain processing. Dr Sam Hughes and Professor Stephen Hall

  • Under normal conditions, pain is associated with both a sensory (i.e. how much something hurts) and an emotional (i.e. how unpleasant something is) component. However, when pain becomes chronic, the emotional responses to persistent pain can result in comorbidities (e.g. anxiety) which exacerbates the condition. Treatments for chronic pain patients are poor; often targeting a generic set of symptoms and neglecting the impact of comorbidities on the chronic pain state. Understanding the relationship between anxiety and pain processing in the brain will help to identify novel treatment approaches which target the underlying pathophysiological mechanisms, opposed to a purely symptom-based approach. We will use a combination of psychophysical and neuroimaging techniques alongside human surrogate models of chronic pain and the CO­2 model of anxiety in healthy volunteers. Using this multimodal approach, we will aim to dissect the role of anxiety on central pain modulation and sensitisation processes with a view to develop novel mechanism-driven analgesic therapies for chronic pain patients.


Environmental effects on pain: exploring the influence of immersive virtual landscapes on pain perception. (Sam Hughes and Kayleigh Wyles)

  • Pain perception is a dynamic process that is influenced by day-to-day changes in our environment. Technological advances in virtual reality (VR) has allowed us to better understand how being absorbed within a specific place or environment can impact pain processing. We have previously shown that exposure to different natural environments can directly impact individuals’ health and wellbeing and that an immersive 360⁰ VR arctic landscape can influence pain perception and modulation in healthy participants. This PhD will aim to build on this research by further exploring the influence of natural landscapes (e.g. seasonal changes in natural versus urban environments) on different pain states (e.g. acute pain versus sensitised pain states). We will use a combination of psychophysics and neurophysiology alongside psychometric profiling techniques in human pain models to investigate the effects of being immersed within different 360⁰ VR natural landscapes on pain perception.