School of Psychology

Cognition and Language


Understanding the way we use language

The Cognition and Language group conducts basic and applied research into human cognition and language.

Cognitive themes include decision-making and reinforcement learning; emotion-based memory and spatial navigation. Language themes include multilingualism and comprehension of irony. They have close links to the Human Development and Learning Group, in particular in the study of developmental disorders such as ADHD and autism, and to the Visual Neuroscience Group with the study of cognitive ageing. The Accident Research Unit is closely integrated with the Cognitive and Language Group.


Recent projects and publications 

Recently funded projects include the spatiotemporal characterisation of value judgement (BBSRC) and skills underlying maths (ESRC).



Harriet Allen
Associate Professor

I measure the neural processes of combining sensory information. My recent research has found differences in the relationship between perception and attention in obesity, autism, and ageing and has applied this to human factors, vehicle design, and the everyday environment.

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I received my BSc and Phd from the University of Nottingham. My PhD investigated low level motion perception. During my BSc I spent a year working for the DRA on Human Factors of simulators and jet fighters.

After my PhD worked in Montreal, at McGill University, again looking at low level vision but this time investigating texture perception and amblyopia (lazy eye). I became interested in how higher level processes such as attention influence low level vision.

I returned to the Uk to spend several years at the University of Birmingham, including 5 as an RCUK fellow. I used behavioural measures and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to investigate the interaction of vision and attention through the adult life span.

I started at Nottingham in September 2011 and am investigating the interaction of attention with perception in multiple contexts including driving, low level and mid level vision and ignoring.

I'm particularly interested in how our brains represent things that we ignore. Do we process and then block these signals, or turn them down at source? Does it matter if we simply attend to something else or if we specifically choose to ignore an object. Do these processes get harder with age?

Emma Birkett
Assistant Professor

My research interests are in the area of developmental dyslexia with a particular focus on timing or temporal processing.

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Charlotte Bonardi
Associate Professor

My main interest is in associative learning, a process that seems to be designed to let us learn about the causal structure of the world around us, allowing us to predict and control our environment. It is clear that this type of learning is important for the most basic aspects of our daily life, and it is found throughout the animal kingdom.

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Some psychologists also argue that networks of associations might underlie more complex types of learning in human subjects, such as concept formation and language. If this view is correct, then it is important for us to have a thorough understanding of associative processes and the limits of what they can explain. My research is (paradoxically) mainly concerned with types of learning that are assumed not to be easily explained in terms of association formation: the aim is to examine whether modifications of associative theory could allow it to accommodate these apparently nonassociative phenomena.

My previous and current work addresses the following topics:


Conditional learning

In some circumstances a particular item can have different associates depending on the conditions in which it is presented: for example, for a bilingual person the sight of a sheep (say) is going to be associated with different verbal labels depending on the language that they are speaking.  It appears as though the context is switching between the different associations that have been formed.  This process, known as conditional learning (or occasion setting) cannot be explained in terms of simple associations.  I have developed an associative-type account of conditional learning, that makes specific predictions about how conditional cues function.  Some of my current research is aimed at testing this hierarchical account of conditional learning.


When a stimulus of a particular duration (e.g. 20 seconds) predicts a particular outcome, association formation allows learning that the stimulus predicts the outcome - but not learning when (i.e. outcome will occur 20 seconds after stimulus onset).  Learning about time in this way does occur, but most associative theories cannot easily explain it, and make relatively few predictions about the effects of the temporal characteristics of cues on associative learning phenomena.  In a collaboration with Dr Dómhnall Jennings (University of Newcastle), we are investigating the way in which associative theories can represent temporal cues, with a view to developing an associative account of timing effects. We are also, in collaboration with Dr Eduardo Alonso (City University) and Dr Esther Mondragón (Centre for Computational and Animal Learning Research), using simulations to evaluate whether our findings can be accommodated by associative theories.

Hippocampus and learning

Damage to the hippocampus produces a complex range of cognitive deficits, for example in spatial learning; however, association formation is usually said to be intact, implying that associative learning does not underly the skills that are affected by hippocampal damage.  However, our recent work suggests that certain sorts of associative learning can be impaired after hippocampal damage, implying that an associative learning impairment could mediate the effects if hippocampal damage on, for example, spatial learning.  We aim to investigate those aspects of associative learning that are impaired by hippocampal damage, and the extent to which this can explain the other, more complex effects of such damage (p conducted with Dr Eric Tam, now at the University of Oxford).  

When learning goes wrong Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia

In some conditions learning is impaired, and we can use what we know about associative theory to analyse these deficits.  For example, schizophrenia is often characterised by high impulsivity, which might be evident as a deficit in inhibitory learning; in a collaboration with Dr Helen Cassaday we confirmed this possibility (work conducted with Dr Zhimin He); related effects were observed in participants with certain types of personality disorder associated with impulsivity deficits.  Schizophrenia is also said to be characterised by a deficit in performance on tasks employing task-setting cues - which are formally equivalent to conditional cues (see above); this leads to the question whether such deficits are also evident in subjects with high schizotypy.  Finally, Alzheimer's disease is characterised by a wide range of cognitive impairments, and yet many of these have not been precisely characterised in associative terms.  In collaboration with Dr Marie-Christine Pardon (School of Biomedical Sciences) and Mr Paul Armstrong, I am currently conducting a series of studies whose long term aim is to analyse the cognitive deficits in a genetically modified strain of mouse that is regarded as a translational model of Alzheimer's disease, and examine their underlying neurobiological correlates.

Learning and Addiction

Human drug seeking has been analysed in terms of classical conditioning: the ability of environmental cues to become associated with the effects of the drug can make them provoke drug-seeking behaviour. The mechanism underlying this process has been modelled by an effect called Pavlovian-instrumental transfer (PIT): if you have two outcomes, chocolate and tobacco, each produced by a different (drug-seeking response), then a conditioned stimulus that signals e.g. chocolate, will increase the level of the chocolate-seeking response more than the tobacco-seeking response (and vv). However, there is still relatively little understanding of how this effect is mediated, and this project would address this. 

Peter Chapman
Associate Professor

I do research in applied cognitive psychology. My main area of application is the psychology of driving, while my more theoretical interests are in vision and memory. Some of my research actually fuses all three of these areas - i.e. where do drivers look, and what do they remember after they have looked there?

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Some examples of the kind of research that I am involved in are:

Visual Search in Novice and Experienced Drivers

We have recorded the eye movements of large numbers of newly qualified drivers both while they are driving an instrumented vehicle and while they are watching videos of driving situations in the laboratory. These drivers seem to have very different search strategies to those used by drivers with five to ten years of traffic experience. We are investigating ways of training newly qualified drivers to use more effective visual search strategies.

Eye Movements in Dangerous Driving Situations

We have found that eye movements in dangerous situations are characterised by an increase in average fixation durations and a reduction in mean saccade length, and in spread of both horizontal and vertical search. These situations also produced particularly dramatic differences between novice and experienced drivers in their visual search strategies.

Memory for Accidents and Near Accidents

Our work on eye movements predicts that memory in dangerous situations should be best for central information and worst for peripheral details. Various memory studies have supported this conclusion. One of our more surprising findings is how often drivers completely forget their accidents and near accidents. Drivers seem to be particularly likely to forget about minor incidents when they did not feel personally responsible for the accident.

Attention and Memory Failures in Routine Tasks

One other surprising example of a memory failure in drivers is the "time gap experience". This is the common feeling of 'waking up' while driving to the realisation that you can't remember anything about the previous section of road. We have found that this type of experience is reported frequently both in driving and other everyday tasks. We also have some tentative evidence linking such experiences to involvement in road traffic accidents.

Traffic Accident Liability

The key practical question in the psychology of driving is to understand individual and situational factors which predict the occurrence of accidents. Some of the factors we have been particularly interested in are hazard perception ability, occurrence of anger while driving, tradeoffs between speed and accuracy, and general driving style as measured in an instrumented vehicle. One new area of interest is company car drivers and the types of accidents that they are involved in.

Lucy Cragg
Associate Professor

My research addresses the development of cognitive control, the set of processes that underlie the ability to control our thought and actions (also termed executive functions).

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These include manipulating and selecting relevant information in working memory, ignoring distractions, suppressing inappropriate response tendencies, and flexibly shifting between different tasks. I am interested in how these processes develop in typical school-age children, how they contribute to academic achievement, and why they go awry in neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD and preterm birth. I also investigate the neural mechanisms that support the development of cognitive control processes using neuroimaging techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG).

Claudia Danielmeier
Assistant Professor

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Jan Derrfuss
Assistant Professor

My research focusses on different aspects of cognitive control, attention, and working memory. I mainly use fMRI and have a particular interest in the inferior frontal junction area (IFJ).

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 The IFJ is a great little brain area in the posterior prefrontal cortex that has been shown to be involved in all of the cognitive functions mentioned above. Actually, as shown in a massive meta-analysis by Tal Yarkoni and colleagues, it is one of the most frequently activated areas in fMRI studies in general.

The term 'inferior frontal junction' was coined by Yves von Cramon. It refers to the IFJ's location at the junction of the inferior frontal sulcus and the inferior precentral sulcus. A number of fMRI studies conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig in the late 1990's and early 2000's had very consistently found activations at the junction of these two sulci, sparking the creation of the term IFJ. Interestingly, however, none of the classic cyto-architectonic maps includes a brain area corresponding to the IFJ in location and extent. So, is the IFJ really an area? Recent research suggests that it is. Katrin Amunts and her group at the Research Center Jülich found evidence for the existence of a previously uncharted area at the junction of the inferior frontal sulcus and the inferior precentral sulcus. This is likely one of the very rare cases where fMRI data have facilitated the discovery of a cyto-architectonic area!

Based on task switching and Stroop studies, we initially described the function of the IFJ as 'updating of task representations'. While I still believe that the IFJ is involved in updating processes, over the years it has become clear that this characterisation describes only one aspect of the functionality of the IFJ. My current hypothesis is that the IFJ represents abstract task-relevant properties of objects. These abstract properties can be task rules (as proposed by our original hypothesis), but can also be other conceptual representations associated with objects. I also assume that these properties depend on the task context (in the sense of John Duncan's adaptive coding model). There is now good evidence, mainly based on work by René Marois' group, that the processing capacity of the IFJ is somewhat limited and that it therefore represents an information processing bottleneck. In addition, as previously hypothesised by us, there is now also evidence that the IFJ is involved in the top-down control of lower-level brain areas (as, for example, shown by Adam Gazzaley's and Robert Desimone's groups).

In future projects, I intend to utilise ultra-high field fMRI to further investigate the functional organisation of the IFJ and its interactions with other brain areas. Furthermore, I plan to use transcranial direct current stimulation, a method that, contrary to fMRI, allows causal inferences about the functional role of brain regions.

I am also interested in neuroanatomy in general and in the history of neuroscience. I particularly esteem Sigmund Exner's prescient "Entwurf zu einer physiologischen Erklärung der psychischen Erscheinungen" [Project for a physiological explanation of mental phenomena], which unfortunately was never translated into English (if I ever have the feeling that I have too much spare time, I might attempt a translation...).

Ruth Filik
Ruth Filik
Associate Professor

The primary aim of my research is to further our understanding of the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying language comprehension. Typically, I seek converging evidence from traditional methods in experimental psychology (such as eye-tracking, self-paced reading, and language production tasks); and cognitive neuroscience methods (for example, EEG).

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My interests lie in how our knowledge of the world and of the context in which we encounter language enable us to understand what we are reading or listening to. Issues that I am currently investigating include; the comprehension of non-literal language (metaphor and irony), the processing of emotional information, reference resolution, quantification, and how readers resolve syntactic and semantic ambiguities more generally.

I also have a strong interest in how basic research in experimental psychology can inform more applied issues, such as the communication of information relating to healthcare (and how this impacts on patient safety), and language development.

Matias Ison
Assistant Professor

My interdisciplinary research programme addresses a variety of topics in the field of cognitive neuroscience. I am particularly interested in: i) studying episodic memory formation, taking advantage of an extraordinary opportunity to record the simultaneous activity of single neurons in awake humans, ii) understanding how information is represented in the brain, iii) developing data analysis techniques to bridge the gap between eye movements and EEG recordings.

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During the last decade, I have established several international collaborations, including UCLA Medical Center, University of Leicester, Harvard, and the University of Buenos Aires. In collaboration with UCLA and Leicester, we recently showed for the first time that individual neurons in the human brain changed their firing to encode new associations at the exact moment of learning. This study attracted worldwide media attention from The New York Times , BBC News, The Daily Mail, Reuters, Newsweek, Science, NPR Radio USA and many others.
Chris Madan
Christopher Madan
Assistant Professor

I study memory using a combination of cognitive psychology, neuroimaging, and computational modeling methods. I am particularly interested in what factors makes some experiences more memorable than others (such as emotion, reward, and motor processing) and how these influences can manifest in future behavior, such as decision making.

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I also specialize in characterizing inter-individual differences in brain morphology, particularly with respect to aging, dementia, and cognitive abilities.

I conduct research across a variety of topics, including emotional memory, risky decision-making, and embodied cognition. I study these topics using behavioral paradigms, as well as fMRI, EEG, and structural MRI. Additionally, some studies involve computational modeling--either in the form of advanced statistical methods and machine learning, or through the development of specific models designed to distinguish between particular theoretical hypotheses.

Riikka Mottonen
Assistant Professor

I investigate how the human brain enables us to communicate using speech and learn languages across the life span.

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Speech communication relies on sensory, motor and cognitive systems. I am especially interested in how the auditory and motor systems interact during speech communication and the factors that modulate these auditory-motor interactions. My current research focuses on the effects of ageing and hearing loss on auditory-motor speech processing. My collaborators and I also examine the brain mechanisms of language learning and how the different memory systems contribute to our ability to learn languages.

I use a variety of techniques in my research such us transcranial magnetic stimulation, electroencephalography, magnetoencephalography and functional MRI.

Andrew Reid
Andrew Reid
Assistant Professor

I am interested in how the the locus coeruleus / noradrenergic system (LC/NE) is involved in the modulation of cognitive functions, including decision making, utility assessment, and adaptive behaviour. I would in particular like to elucidate the potential role of this neuromodulatory system in the neurodegenerative processes underlying healthy aging and Alzheimer's-type dementia.

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I have a number of lines of research, and am always interested in hearing from prospective students about their research ideas or questions. These research topics are described below. Bear in mind that there is a lot of overlap between each topic, so potential projects will likely involve parts of each (for example, investigating the influence of neuromodulation in age-related cognitive decline). Feel free to contact me for more details, or check out my personal website:

Neuromodulation of Cognition

My current research seeks to elucidate the role of the neuromodulator norepinephrine in the control of high-level cognitive processes such as decision making, sequential reinforcement learning, vigilance, and adaptation to changing environments. I have developed a realistic 3D highway driving simulator in which participants make decisions about traffic situations of varying difficulty. At the same time, I measure pupil diameter (a proxy measure for norepinephrine) and brain activity, using EEG. Projects in this topic would include designing experiments, collecting experimental data, and analyzing behavioural, pupillometry, and EEG results.

Brain Connectivity

I am interested using neuroimaging methods, including MRI, EEG, and MEG, to estimate how the human brain is connected, and how its connectivity changes under specific conditions or clinical disorders. In particular, my research focuses on combining information from many types of brain imaging, in order to get a picture of how brain structure and function coordinate to produce cognition. Projects in this topic would involve working with large neuroimaging datasets, using Python to process and analyze these datasets, and applying connectivity analysis software to experimental data.

Age-related Neurodegeneration

As our brains age, they begin to degenerate. For example, over 90% of people over the age of 60 have some degeneration of the brain's white matter (axonal wiring). Similarly, close to 30% of the world population over age 85 have some form of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease. A major focus of my research is to better understand how the brain changes earlier in life, and whether these changes can be used to predict whether a person will go on to develop Alzheimer's or other neurodegenerative disease. Knowledge of this process can be very informative about how to prevent or stave off its effects later in life. Projects in this topic would include analyzing public databases of elderly cohorts, as well as people with genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's disease.
Danielle Ropar
Associate Professor

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Lizzy Sheppard
Assistant Professor

I have a wide range of research interests relating to Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and visual perception. I'm interested in cognitive processes involved in driving, including perceptual, attentional and decision-making processes.

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Autism spectrum disorders

At the moment I am particularly interested in how people with ASD make inferences about other people's mental states and personality traits. Conversely, how do typical adults form impressions of those with ASD? What type of perceptual information do people rely on to make these judgments? I am also interested in the more general question of what kind of beliefs people in the population hold about ASD, and whether they differ across cultures?

Psychology of driving

I'm particularly interested in how these processes differ between individuals who have learned to drive in environments where driver behaviour, accident and fatality rates dramatically differ: for instance, we have carried out a number of studies comparing drivers from the UK with drivers from Malaysia. I'm also interested in how other individual differences may influence performance within the driving domain, including how having an Autism Spectrum Disorder affects aspects of driving skill.

Jonathan Stirk
Deputy Director of Teaching

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Walter van Heuven
Associate Professor

My research interests are in the area of monolingual and bilingual language processing, computational models of language processing, and neuroimaging studies of the bilingual brain

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My current work investigates word processing in monolinguals and bilinguals (e.g., orthographic and morphological processing, automatic translation), cognitive control in bilinguals, and incidental foreign language acquisition. I am also working on computational models of language processing and cognitive control (e.g., models of bilingual word processing, letter position coding, and Stroop).
Ed Wilding
Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor for the Graduate School and Research Career Development

I am studying the cognitive and neural basis of human long-term memory. My particular interests at the moment are in questions about how we exert control over what we remember and what we forget.

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There are several ways in which cognitive control operations can influence memory retrieval. I attempt to disentangle these and to delineate their impact via the combined use of behavioral assessments and assays of neural activity. The majority of my work involves the use of real-time imaging measures (electroencephalography: EEG, and magnetoencephalography: MEG) but I also employ functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) where it is the most useful modality to address the question at hand.

Past Research

I have studied several topics that revolve around the question of how memory retrieval works. This work has covered key questions about the memory processes that are indexed by different measures of neural activity and how these neural measures can be deployed to develop our understanding of cognitive systems. In addition I have contributed to knowledge about how preparation for retrieval, retrieval search, retrieval success and retrieval monitoring operate.

Future Research

Memories can come to mind involuntarily and I have a developing interest in understanding what factors determine when this will (and will not) occur. It is clearly important that memories can come to mind unbidden in certain circumstances, but also undesirable if this were to happen too often. I intend to develop my understanding of how this balance is maintained, and what happens when the balance goes awry.

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School of Psychology

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