Funded PhD studentships in the School of Psychology

 6-year Teaching and Research Associate (TARA) studentship

Closing date 7 June, 2020



The School of Psychology at Plymouth University is offering (in addition to the five positions that closed 10th May) a further 6-year Teaching and Research Associate position (TARAs). TARAs are part-time teaching positions with the remainder of the time devoted to PhD research. This TARA can be engaged in any research area supported by the School (see possible projects below).

Successful applicants will be part of a large, vibrant, highly collaborative community of PhD students with good interdisciplinary links. Currently the school has over 40 students registered for a PhD. Students have access to an extensive, modern and well-equipped laboratory facilities, supported by a dedicated team of technical staff, as well as the Brain Research and Imaging Centre (BRIC).

  

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, music, development, emotion, health, clinical psychology, social psychology and neuroscience. Candidates are strongly encouraged to discuss their proposal/plans with their intended supervisor. Further details about research in our school and our academic staff are available from our web pages.





Potential PhD topics in Health and Applied Psychology

 Functional Imagery Training Professor Jackie Andrade & Professor Jon May

  • Functional Imagery Training (FIT) is a novel technique for supporting motivation through mental imagery. Our recent trial data show a fivefold improvement in weight loss for participants receiving FIT compared with motivational interviewing (Solbrig et al., 2018). We have also shown that FIT improves resilience or ‘grit’ in elite athletes (Rhodes et al., 2018). Building on this work, we would like to recruit a PhD student to test FIT in a new domain or investigate the mechanisms underpinning its efficacy.

 Long-term Health Conditions in children  Dr Alyson Norman & Jon Pinkney

  • There has been very little research looking at the involvement of children in medical decision-making. Children with long term health conditions, such as cleft lip and and/or palate, or pituitary conditions that affect hormonal control within the body require considerable medical management. Their management is notoriously difficult and patients often experience high levels of distress which are often not addressed by health professionals. This PhD will focus on understanding the experiences of children with one of these conditions and developing a better understanding of their involvement in the decision-making process. This PhD would involve interviewing children and young people aged 10–25.

 The development of an intervention to support the social and community rehabilitation of Individuals with acquired brain injuries (ABI) Dr Alyson Norman

  • Many individuals with ABI experience difficulties once they are discharged from hospital care, such as unemployment and an inability to return to education. Additionally, they are known to be at increased risk of developing mental health or substance abuse problems, becoming homeless or entering the prison and probation services. It is important to understand how to support individuals with ABI through these services in order to develop interventions to improve people’s access to services. The exact nature of this PhD will be decided with the candidate but, the basic premise includes, 1) identifying the difficulties experienced by individuals with Acquired Brain Injuries (ABI) across a range of services associated with their rehabilitation, 2) identifying the difficulties professionals experience when interacting with individuals with ABI, and 3) identify ways to better support individuals through their rehabilitation in the future by developing a new intervention.

 Bereavement in families Dr Jacqui Stedmon

  • 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.

 

Potential PhD topics in Human Neuroscience

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 prevaricator 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 (brain sensing and brain stimulation) 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.

 Neuroimaging of Environmental Extremes: exploring brain changes in a hyperbaric chamber Professor Stephen Hall (UoP) & Dr Gary Smerdon (DDRC Healthcare)

  • A change in atmospheric pressure, for example during deep-sea-diving, produces a range of cognitive and behavioural effects. Similarly, conditions of high or low oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gasses, result in observable changes in human performance. We will use a combination of neuroimaging techniques, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electroencephalography (EEG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), to understand the neural basis of changes that occur when humans are exposed to increased atmospheric pressure in a hyperbaric chamber. We will use controlled manipulation of the gas environment inside and outside the chamber, to better understand the mechanisms that underlie the cognitive and behavioural effects of these treatments. This project is a collaboration between the new University of Plymouth, Brain Research and Imaging Centre (BRIC: www.plymouth.ac.uk/BRIC) and the Diving Diseases Research charity (DDRC Healthcare).

 Characterising structural and functional brain changes before and after liver transplantation Professor Stephen Hall  (UoP), Dr Ashwin Dhanda (UHP) & Dr Alastair Smith (UoP)

  •  Liver cirrhosis affects an estimated 60,000 people in England. A key feature of progression is Hepatic Encephalopathy (HE), a neuropsychiatric disorder that causes cognitive dysfunction. Early/minimal HE is challenging to identify but has a considerable impact on a patient’s quality of life. At present, there are no accurate objective tests for minimal HE, since suitable psychometric assessments are time consuming and rarely used. Instead, current practice relies on a combination of clinical history, electroencephalography (EEG), blood-ammonia level and critical flicker fusion (CFF) testing. Treatment can improve cognitive function in patients diagnosed with HE, and curative transplant is offered in more severe cases. However, optimal management of HE patients requires a better understanding of the changes that occur, to inform more accurate and reliable diagnoses. This PhD project will be based at the Brain Research and Imaging Centre (BRIC: www.plymouth.ac.uk/BRIC) and represents a collaboration between the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth, the Hepatology Research Group (HRG) in the Peninsula Medical School, and the South West Liver Unit at University Hospitals Plymouth (UHP). The aim of the project is to characterise the structural and functional changes that occur in the brains of patients with liver disease, before and after liver transplantation. We will make use of the advanced neuroimaging techniques at BRIC, including functional MRI (fMRI), MR Spectroscopy, EEG and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). These techniques will be used alongside sensitive cognitive and behavioural testing, and clinical measures of blood ammonia, in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between brain changes and clinical observations. By assessing patients before and after liver transplantation, this project will enable the intra-individual comparison of changes in brain and cognition, with a unique potential to identify novel accurate markers for minimal HE.

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.

 

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.


Potential PhD topics in Developmental Psychology

 

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.

Children’s awareness of words Dr Allegra Cattani & Professor Caroline Floccia

  • Pre-school children at around age three are constant talkers, sometimes in an endless stream. This helps children learn and process information. When children talk, they need to successfully make use of the correct phonological rules of their own language. This project aims to discover how children learn and become aware of the phonological rules. Is there a link between vocabulary knowledge and phonological awareness? Are there learning routes within the same language or across languages? When and how do bilingual children become skilled in the phonological knowledge of each of the two languages? The methodology includes psychology experiments along with other approaches including vocabulary testing.

Development of face processing in young children Dr Allegra Cattani & Dr Chris Longmore

  • ‘Incipe parve puer risu cognoscere matrem’, the ancient poet Virgilio was cognisant that a newborn infant and the mother exchanges smiles from the very early moments of life. Within a matter of hours after birth infants show an impressive ability to track human schematic faces and within quickly develop sensitivity to the particular type of faces that they are exposed to. Infants appear capable of processing configural information in faces and they respond to internal features of faces. There are still many unanswered questions of face processing in infants around the understanding of the characteristic of development toward the preference of own versus different race faces or about the face familiarisation process in infants. The proposal may also investigate the development of hemispheric preferences. The prospective PhD student will tailor the research angle using the available eye-tracking and picture cards methods with the support of the team supervisors. This proposal aims to explore questions such as these in further detail.

The neural basis of credit assignment Dr Elsa Fouragnan
  • Identifying the cause of a positive or negative event when overloaded with information, - the credit assignment problem - is challenging, particularly for patients with neuropsychiatric conditions. The goal of this PhD is to identify the biomarkers of credit assignment in the human brain in order to develop a new circuit-based treatment for substance abuse disorders. Addiction is the third most costly mental health condition in the UK (~£10 billion per annum) with few effective treatments. The PhD student will be required to work with multimodal EEG and fMRI as well as computational models of decision making. High-level programming skills (Matlab, R or Python) and use of mathematical models are essential for the project.

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 yo take part in psychology studies. A clear enhanced DBS check will be requested.





How to apply for the TARA position

The position (A7211) can be found on the University website. Please look here for the Job Specification and further details.

You will need to apply via HR (www.plymouth.ac.uk/jobs). Please see https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/about-us/jobs/completing-your-application for more details of applying for jobs at the University.

IMPORTANT NOTE: please include a 750 word proposal and a 1 page CV with your application.

For queries about the Teaching and Research Associate positions, please contact Professor Tim Hollins at tim.hollins@plymouth.ac.uk.










Potential PhD topics in Cognition and Social Cognition

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.

 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.

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.

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.

Mind wandering, Imagination and Emotion 
Dr Clare Walsh

  • When people engage in everyday tasks, they frequently allow their minds to wander to unrelated thoughts. During mind wandering people often think about the past or the future and they often imagine how things could have happened differently or they imagine what might happen in the future. This project will examine the processes involved in different kinds of mind wandering. By varying the tasks that people engage in, we will examine the impact on the amount and content of people's mind wandering thoughts. The project will also examine the impact of these thoughts on people's judgments and emotions.

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.

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.

The curious effect of pre-testing on memory Prof Tim Hollins, Prof Chris Mitchell, Dr Giorgio Ganis & Prof 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.

 Source errors in recall Professor Tim Hollins

  • Memory errors often involve confusions about the source of an event – people report reading what they saw on TV, witnessing what they heard in conversation, or confusing yesterday’s dinner with what they ate the day before.  Why do such confusions occur?  Two steps are involved. First the wrong memory has to come to mind (selection), and then it has to be wrongly accepted (monitoring).  To date, the study of such errors has been dominated by source-monitoring paradigms using recognition memory tests, but these neglect the role of selection (because the experimenter provides the item). Consequently, this PhD will attempt to develop recall-based paradigms to test the joint role of selection and monitoring in recall.

The cognitive representation of non-speech audio Professor Judy Edworthy

  • Understanding how we process non-speech auditory information has important implications for how we learn, remember, and represent auditory sequences. Two examples of short auditory sequences which have important real-world functions are the hooks of popular songs and the auditory alarms and warnings which surround us. In this project we will investigate the contributions of acoustic and other factors (for example, semantic factors) which contribute to the ease with which short audio sequences are learned, remembered, imagined, are capable of conveying metaphor and meaning,  and are involuntary (in the case of 'earworms'). The methodologies used may include cognitive psychology experiments along with other techniques (which may include physiological measurements) and approaches. The project will further develop our theoretical knowledge of auditory cognition whilst contributing to the relevant applied areas of popular music construction and the design of audible alarms.                                                      

Singing out of tune: the Rod Stewart phenomenon Professor Judy Edworthy

  • How do we react to out-of-tune singing? Anecdotally there are several very successful singers who habitually sing sharp, and yet we find this acceptable, indeed enjoyable. As a psychological phenomenon the issue of mismatch between auditory figure and ground taps into several fundamental issues of auditory perception including psychophysics (how out-od-tune does the melody has to be before we notice it), categorical perception (when a melody is so out-of-tune relative to its background it is now in a new and different key) and aesthetics (how can we sometimes like an out-of-tune melody, and how does this interact with categorical perception). This project will investigate these issues in a series of experiments using traditional laboratory techniques, and in later stages may take a neuroscience and/or applied perspective, working with local music studios.

Getting lost in a virtual world Dr. Alastair Smith & 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.

Navigation in real and virtual worlds Dr. Alastair Smith & Dr. Peter Jones

  • For effective navigation, it is essential that we are able to keep track of our location and orientation in space. How exactly humans and other animals do this is hotly debated, and this project will aim to shed more light on this process. We will examine how people navigate in real and virtual environments in order to determine how we use different kinds of information to find our way. For instance, people might use distinctive landmarks and boundaries as a guide to position. We might also use visual and self-motion cues to maintain a record of our movements so that we know where we are in relation to where we have come from. This project will examine how we learn to find our way around, how different kinds of information interact with one another, and whether our movements are guided by internal maps of the external world.

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.