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Funded PhD studentship in Perception and Learning (NewSense project)

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Wednesday, January 08, 2020
  • Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

A 3-year full-time PhD studentship is available at the Department of Psychology at Durham University, UK, to start in October 2020. The successful candidate will join the project NewSense led by Prof Marko Nardini and funded by the European Research Council. The studentship will combine behavioural, modelling and neuroimaging methods to investigate people’s abilities to learn to use new sensory signals to improve their perceptual and motor skills. The studentship covers UK/EU or International tuition fees, a tax-free annual stipend at the RCUK rate (currently £15,009), and generous research expenses.

*** This ad contains only a summary of the project and application information. For full information, please go to http://community.dur.ac.uk/marko.nardini/opportunities.html ***

Who is eligible

Basic criteria set by Durham University and the Department of Psychology:
• Applicants must have at least an upper second class honours degree (2:1) from a UK university, or an equivalent degree qualification from an overseas university
• Applicants must have strong written and spoken English (evidence of English language ability may be required for applicants who are not native speakers of English)

See the full information at http://community.dur.ac.uk/marko.nardini/opportunities.html for additional criteria specific to this studentship.

How to apply

Please e-mail applications by January 8th 2020 to , including
• CV (resume), including a detailed breakdown of marks obtained in studies so far
• A covering letter outlining your suitability for and interests in the studentship. Please see the full list of requirements at http://community.dur.ac.uk/marko.nardini/opportunities.html.
• Names and contact details for two academic referees
• An example of a report written by yourself reporting research you have carried out, such as an undergraduate or Masters dissertation.

Project summary

The PhD studentship is part of a 5-year EUR 2m research project at Durham University funded by the European Research Council.

Overview of the whole project: Advances in wearable displays and networked devices lead to the exciting possibility that humans can transcend the senses they were born with and learn to ‘see’ the world in radically new ways. Genuinely incorporating new signals in our sensory repertoire would transform our everyday experience, from social encounters to surgery, as well as having crucial applications to people with sensory loss. However, current additions to sensory streams such as navigating with GPS are far from being incorporated into our natural perception: we interpret them effortfully, like words from a foreign menu, rather than feeling them directly. This project will use a ground-breaking new approach to test how new sensory signals can be incorporated into the fundamental human experience. We will train participants using new immersive virtual-reality paradigms[1], which give us unprecedented speed, control and flexibility. We will test what is learned by comparing different mathematical model predictions with perceptual performance[1,2]. This model-based approach uniquely shows when new signals are integrated into standard sensory processing. We will compare neuroimaging data with model predictions[3] to detect integration of newly-learned signals within brain circuits processing familiar signals. We will test predictions that short-term changes to normal visual input can improve adult plasticity[4], and measure age-changes in plasticity by testing 8- to 12-year-old children. In a wide-ranging design allowing for domain-general conclusions, we will work across modalities (visual, auditory, tactile) and across two fundamental perceptual problems: judging spatial layout (‘where’ objects are)[1] and material properties (‘what’ they are made of). The work will provide fundamental insights into computational and brain mechanisms underlying sensory learning, and a platform for transcending the limits of human perception.

Specific area for the PhD studentship: The specific focus of this studentship is on the potential for short-term visual deprivation to promote plasticity and boost learning. Previous studies showed that major short-term deprivation (e.g. 5 days of blindfold-wear) promotes representation of non-visual signals (tactile stimuli for Braille-reading) in ‘visual’ cortex[4], and alters multisensory interactions[5], likely by strengthening existing multimodal cortico-cortical connections6. We will test the hypothesis that major deprivation of visual input will improve learning of augmented signals to spatial layout and material properties by improving their representation in sensory cortex. Specifically, we predict that, compared with normal learning, learning while visually-deprived will improve behavioural indices (e.g. of precision, ‘cue combination’[1,2], and ‘automaticity’[7]) and show higher levels of recruitment of ‘visual’ cortex for judgments including the new cue in fMRI measures. As well as blindfolding, we will test an even more novel intervention, major degrading of visual depth perception via optical filters and monocular patching, which could be optimal for training ‘visual’ areas in a novel Bayes-like combination[1–3] of sensory signals.

*** For full information, please go to http://community.dur.ac.uk/marko.nardini/opportunities.html ***

Funding Notes

Open to UK, EU, or International applicants

References

1. Negen, J., Wen, L., Thaler, L. & Nardini, M. Bayes-Like Integration of a New Sensory Skill with Vision. Sci. Rep. 8, 16880 (2018).
2. Rohde, M., van Dam, L. C. J. & Ernst, M. Statistically Optimal Multisensory Cue Integration: A Practical Tutorial. Multisens. Res. 29, 279–317 (2016).
3. Dekker, T. M. et al. Late Development of Cue Integration Is Linked to Sensory Fusion in Cortex. Curr. Biol. 25, 2856–2861 (2015).
4. Merabet, L. B. et al. Rapid and Reversible Recruitment of Early Visual Cortex for Touch. PLoS One 3, e3046 (2008).
5. Lo Verde, L., Morrone, M. C. & Lunghi, C. Early Cross-modal Plasticity in Adults. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 29, 520–529 (2017).
6. Merabet, L. B. & Pascual-Leone, A. Neural reorganization following sensory loss: the opportunity of change. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 11, 44–52 (2010).
7. Moors, A. & De Houwer, J. Automaticity: A theoretical and conceptual analysis. Psychol. Bull. 132, 297–326 (2006).

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