About the Project
Professor Patric Bach (University of Aberdeen)
Dr Joost Rommers (University of Aberdeen)
Social interactions rely on the ability to see meaning and purpose in others’ behaviour. We see the excitement in our child running towards the shop window, the disgust when our friend brushes away a spider, or the exhaustion when our workout partner reaches for a drink. And while such inferences guide all social interactions – and may be responsible for their breakdown in conditions such as autism in schizophrenia – the underlying brain mechanisms are unclear.
This PhD project will combine psychophysical measurements with state-of-the-art EEG methods to identify the neurocognitive mechanisms underpinning these inferences. It relies on recent tasks developed by the 1st supervisor (1) that reveal this attribution of meaning to others’ behaviour and make it visible as a perceptual confirmation bias that subtly distorts observed behaviour towards its implied goals. In these tasks, participants see the onset of an action, such as a hand starting to reach for an object until it suddenly disappears. When participants report the hand’s exact last seen location, judgments are systematically biased: hands seemed to have reached closer towards objects that the actors seem to want, and further away from obstacles they wanted to avoid.
These distortions to perceptual judgments are of large effect size and highly robust across several studies, stimulus sets and measurement methods (2). They therefore provide an ideal measure to quantitatively assess the integration of meaning into social perception. Here, we will identify the brain mechanisms that underlie this integration of meaning and perception and link them to the resulting changes in perceptual judgments. The research strategy is inspired by similar studies in language research developed by the 2nd supervisor (3), and which have already identified brain correlates that may describe these processes, from the pre-activation of an action’s anticipated meaning (N400-like ERP components), the propagation of expectations through the brain (alpha oscillations), and their updating by new input (e.g. theta oscillations, late positive potentials).
By uncovering the brain mechanisms that characterize the integration of expectations with social perception, this interdisciplinary PhD program takes the first steps towards a new view of how humans understand each other and to what extent these mechanisms correspond to similar processes in language. The project would be suitable for candidates with a background in psychology, neuroscience, or biology with interests in social perception and electrophysiology. In their work, the PhD candidate will combine advanced psychophysical methods with temporal and spectral analyses of electrophysiological data. They will develop expertise in digital signal processing and programming (Matlab, R), both skills highly useful in industry and academia.
Please send your completed EASTBIO application form, along with academic transcripts to Alison McLeod at [Email Address Removed]. Two references should be provided by the deadline using the EASTBIO reference form. Please advise your referees to return the reference form to [Email Address Removed].
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.
2. Bach, P. & Schenke, K. (2017). Predictive social perception: towards a unifying framework from action observation to person knowledge. Social and Personality Psychology Compass.
3. Rommers, J., & Federmeier, K. D. (2018). Lingering expectations: A pseudo-repetition effect for words previously expected but not presented. Neuroimage, 183, 263-272.
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