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Departmental Studentships: Potential Projects and Supervisors

Departmental Studentships: Potential Projects and Supervisors

The deadline for the next open call is midnight on 31st May 2021

If applying for a Psychology Department studentship, applicants must apply for one of the projects listed below through the College application process, in collaboration with the named supervisor(s). If an applicant wishes, they may apply for a project other than those listed (again this must be in collaboration with a supervisor), which could be considered for the SeNSS ESRC DTP or other schemes. Note that if unsuccessful in these, the student would not be automatically considered for a Psychology Department Studentship.

When launching the UK Loneliness Strategy in late 2018, Theresa May called loneliness one of the greatest public health challenges, on par with smoking and obesity. Loneliness affects people across the spectrum of age, race, and socioeconomic status and has grave consequences for mental and physical health. Most of the research has focused on loneliness in older people. However, young people may be even more affected. For instance, epidemiological research indicates an increase of over 60% in adolescent loneliness between 1991 and 2014. This trend is likely to be accelerated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we increasingly understand the negative impact of loneliness, we know a lot less about the mechanisms that explain why some people struggle to overcome loneliness. We are open to any project ideas that aim to explain persistent loneliness in childhood or adolescence. Potential questions include: Is persistent loneliness associated with lower Theory of Mind or a bias to detect social threats? Do the mechanisms differ between children and adolescents? Does early experience predict persistent loneliness? The project will be based on cognitive tasks, questionnaires, and semi-structured interviews. Depending on the applicant's interests, this can be complemented by neuroimaging investigations (EEG, fMRI, structural MRI).

Extant research shows that people are quick to categorise others by their social group memberships using only facial appearance. This applies not only to group memberships that are perceptually obvious (i.e., age, gender, ethnicity), but also to group memberships that are perceptually ambiguous, such as sexual orientation and social class. Adult perceivers moreover show above-chance accuracy in making such categorisations, but it is unclear when in development people begin to categorise others by such groups and when they begin to show accuracy. This project will therefore explore the perception of perceptually ambiguous group membership across development. Using face photographs validated in previous research using adult perceivers, we will ask children and adolescents to categorise faces by group memberships such as “rich” vs “poor” or “gay” vs “straight”. We will also assess participants’ understanding of these categories (e.g., stereotypes) and test the facial cues perceivers use to make their judgments (e.g., attractiveness, emotion, gender typicality). This research will reveal when in development accurate perception of such group memberships emerges and will clarify whether children and adolescents use similar facial cues as adults do to inform their judgments—helping to provide a more complete picture of the development of face-based first impressions.

Negative beliefs about the self and others (e.g. ‘I am worthless’, ‘others are bad’) have been proposed to play a causal role in the development and maintenance of the symptoms of schizophrenia, including persecutory delusions (‘paranoia’) and auditory hallucinations (‘hearing voices’).  Research has shown that negative self-beliefs are common and have a profound impact on people with schizophrenia.  However, research is needed to determine whether a short psychological therapy designed specifically to target negative self-beliefs might be helpful for people with schizophrenia.  Evaluating an intervention that specifically targets negative self- beliefs is crucial, given the impact these have on quality of life for people with schizophrenia.  The proposed project would involve conducting three studies, which would involve: (1) conducting a systematic review and meta analysis to synthesise existing knowledge about negative self-beliefs in people with schizophrenia and examine the extent to which this is associated with symptom content and severity; (2) conduct a pilot randomised controlled trial of a group-based brief (4 session) psychological therapy that specifically targets negative self-beliefs that underlie and maintain the symptoms of schizophrenia; (3) To conduct interviews with individuals who have undertaken the therapy to understand the processes of change and acceptability of the therapy.

In applied forensic contexts, official agents (e.g., in courtrooms, police) must weigh how much evidence is needed to take critical actions, even when they are faced with partial information and uncertainty. Thus, society has a pressing need to understand how much evidence people in such situations use to justify their decisions. In many forensic situations, people base decisions on visual information gathered from the faces of others. Assessment of facial information for decision making is crucial for contexts ranging from passport screening at airports, identification of missing or trafficked children and eyewitness lineup identification of suspects. Indeed, officials in these contexts often view facial photographs at one time (e.g., passport pictures) and must then identify the individuals from their faces “in the wild” – in real-world contexts where visual evidence is incomplete, variable, noisy, uncertain or costly to obtain. This PhD project will test hypotheses about how people make decisions about visual evidence (e.g., from a face) in settings resembling forensics contexts. Methods could include behavioural experimentation (e.g., on-line studies) and computational modelling. We also aim to innovate procedures that might be implemented in real-world contexts to improve evidence-based decisions.

The ‘textbook’ view of human hippocampal function is that it constitutes an exclusive memory system in the brain. Emerging theoretical models, however, suggest that the hippocampus forms flexible, spatial-relational representations that can be used, in a goal-directed manner, across multiple cognitive domains, including perception, navigation, and imagination (Duff and Brown-Schmidt, 2012; Murray et al., 2016; Zeidman and Maguire, 2016). What is less understood is whether these hippocampal representations contribute to our understanding and production of language. Recent neuroimaging and neuropsychological studies provide initial evidence that the hippocampus supports online language comprehension, particularly when demand in placed on relational processing (Blank et al., 2016). The aim of this PhD project is to apply advanced neuroimaging methods to better understand the precise role of the human hippocampal system in online language processing, as well as explore the interrelationship between episodic memory, navigation, and communication (Corballis, 2019). 

The student will be based at the Department of Psychology with access to its MRI facilities and support team. The Department provides an excellent training environment for PhD students, as well as bespoke courses on advanced MRI methods. The supervisory team also have strong expertise in the methods and approaches to be applied in this project, including cognitive experimental design, neuroimaging (fMRI, dMRI), and theoretical models of memory, language and spatial cognition.

Social groups are a fundamental part of our lives. They can serve as a source of social influence; for example, knowing that one’s political party supports a particular law increases one’s support for that law. Previous work has suggested that social influence may be better understood as propagating via latent (or hidden) groups that we infer from the world, rather than through direct neighbours (e.g., friends or family). Do these latent groups also help uphold and maintain false beliefs and misinformation? Through a series of experimental studies and computational modelling, we will investigate how we can leverage social groups to exacerbate and attenuate people’s beliefs.

There are over 7000 languages in the world and they show great diversity in sounds, vocabulary, grammar and so forth. This project will investigate whether the reason certain languages have certain features and not others is due to the social structure of the community that speaks them (e.g., the community’s size, heterogeneity, interconnectivity). The project’s general approach is to see whether community structure influences the dynamics of information flow or the community’s social needs, and consequently the characteristics of the language that the community creates. We are open to any proposal that takes inspiration from the supervisory team’s research expertise but some potential questions include: Do languages spoken by more heterogeneous communities have more expressive language, including more expressive swear words? How does the structure of the community influence the spread of cultural trends and cultural evolution? Do languages spoken by more people categorise the physical and social world in a more fine-grained manner (e.g., have 10 colour words rather than 3, more specific social categories)? The project will rely mostly on group experiments where participants will create novel languages by playing communication games. Depending on the applicant’s skills, these can be complemented with computational simulations and analyses of cross-linguistic data.

While the cerebellum is classically associated with ‘lower-level’ processes, such as motor learning, accumulating evidence from nonhuman species suggests that it may support higher-level cognitive functions, such as spatial navigation. Such functionality might be underpinned by its extensive connectivity with subcortical structures involved in spatial learning and memory, such as the hippocampus. In rodent models, cerebellar disruption modulates hippocampal ‘place cell’ firing and impairs hippocampal-dependent spatial behaviour. These studies provide strong evidence that the cerebellum directly influences hippocampal function, and that their interactions may be critical for generating allocentric representations of space.  Despite this, there is a lack of knowledge about how the cerebellum and hippocampus interact within the human brain, and indeed within primates more broadly. This PhD project leverages existing high-resolution, multimodal imaging data across species to examine anatomical and/or functional connectivity between the primate hippocampus and cerebellum. Further, we will apply computational neuroscience techniques, such as connectivity-based parcellation, to explore how these connections are topographically organised, and whether functional gradients present along the hippocampal longitudinal axis are also detectable within the cerebellar cortex. Finally, we will design a novel functional MRI task to probe the precise functional role of this network in spatial cognition.

There is wide agreement that a child’s spoken language abilities provide an essential foundation for learning to read. However, much less is known about whether and how learning to read shapes a child’s spoken language abilities. There are multiple ways in which this might occur.  For example, while the words in continuous speech all run together, printed text typically includes spacing between words.  Encounters with printed text may thus assist in speech segmentation and the learning of individual words.  Likewise, research suggests that books contain richer vocabulary and more complex syntax than spoken language. Thus, encounters with the language used in books may confer broad benefits to a child’s linguistic knowledge.  This project will investigate the reciprocity between reading acquisition and spoken language abilities through a combination of laboratory research and behavioural research with young children. There will be considerable flexibility for the student to shape the project according to their own interests.

Making good choices requires learning how our actions relate to specific events in the external world. Yet, this learning process can be biased by how we make, and evaluate, our decisions. While such biases can be generally adaptive, understanding them could help improve decision making. Moreover, such interactions can give rise to, and maintain, maladaptive patterns of (meta)cognition linked to psychiatric symptoms, e.g. depression or compulsions. Given the high economic and societal costs of mental illness, the leading cause of disability in the UK, better treatment and prevention strategies are needed. Combining behavioural, computational and neuroimaging methods will improve our understanding of how learning and decision making interact with self-monitoring and attribution, in mental health and illness. Focusing on symptoms, over diagnostic categories, will serve to identify specific patterns of maladaptive cognition. This offers a unique opportunity to develop novel tools that may subsequently help to refine differential diagnosis and improve treatment selection, as well as provide a foundation for the development of novel psychological interventions.

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