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EASTBIO Is working memory accessed through modality-specific control functions?

School of Psychology

Dr T Katus , Dr S Andersen Wednesday, January 06, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


Dr Tobias Katus (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Soren K Andersen (University of Aberdeen)

Sensory information that is no longer physically present but still needed for a cognitive task is represented in working memory (WM). Virtually all intentional activities in everyday life require some form of WM, which is involved in higher cognition and in the most basic perceptual and motor tasks. Despite the importance of WM for mind and behaviour, it is still unclear how humans access memory to select relevant information.

An influential theory characterizes WM as a system comprising storage processes for each sensory modality (e.g. vision, audition) that are regulated by a central executive process. Once items are stored in WM, tasks may require the retrieval of only a specific subset of items for successful completion. This selection process is guided by the central executive process, which initiates the updating of control settings that are then used to regulate processing in modality-specific systems where the task-relevant information is stored.

If WM is accessed through a central process, the resulting electrophysiological and behavioural effects should be consistent across different modalities. However, unpublished observations from our lab suggest that orienting attention in tactile WM leads to considerably larger electrophysiological effects than in visual WM tasks. This observation seems counterintuitive, as the electrophysiological effects observed in studies where the targets of attentional selection are known in advance of stimulus presentation show the opposite pattern of results, that is, larger effects for vision relative to touch. Such an interaction is not predicted by current theories of WM. It would suggest that the top-down control of WM is more effective in touch than in vision and that modality-specific aspects of attention control are more important than previously thought.

The goal of this PhD project is to systematically investigate the effectiveness of attentional selection processes in tactile WM, and to compare them to visual WM. To elucidate the neural mechanisms responsible for orienting attention in tactile versus visual WM, the project will involve a series of studies where EEG recordings of brain activity and behavioural measures are assessed during the performance of tactile and visual WM tasks.

The project sits on the intersection of experimental psychology, biology, and neuroscience, and it employs quantitative research methods to answer fundamental questions linked with important topics such as attention, WM, and executive control, not only in the tactile or visual modalities, but also in multisensory task scenarios. The work skills acquired and the academic outcomes of the project will put the PhD candidate in an excellent position for a further career in academia or in the applied sciences, such as industrial engineering, for example, interface design for applications or technical devices with multisensory feedback signals.

The PhD student will develop strong expertise in computer programming, experimental design, EEG-based methods for measuring attention processes in somatosensory and visual cortex, and of techniques that allow for dissociating between tactile and visual attention processes that operate concurrently in multisensory tasks. The work requires a good mathematical understanding, and the project would suit candidates with backgrounds in psychology, neuroscience, computer science, or engineering.

Application Procedure:

Please send your completed EASTBIO application form, along with academic transcripts to Alison McLeod at . Two references should be provided by the deadline using the EASTBIO reference form. Please advise your referees to return the reference form to .

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership View Website. This opportunity is open to UK and International students and provides funding to cover stipend and UK level tuition (limited funding is available to provide international tuition fees). Please refer to UKRI website and Annex B of the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions for full eligibility criteria.

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2:1 UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in a relevant subject.
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