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Cognition and Neuroscience Research Group

Synaesthesia - Exploring atypical perceptual and sensory experiences

Mary Jane Spiller has been working on a number of projects that explore the impact of long-term atypical perceptual / sensory experiences on cognition and individual differences. These include studies that explore the impact of synaesthesia on visuo-spatial abilities (in collaboration with researchers at the University of Edinburgh) and personality (in collaboration with researchers at the University of Sussex) in addition to exploring differences in the spatial cognition of individuals with visual impairment (in collaboration with researchers at the University of Bath). Mary was awarded a British Psychological Society Research Seminar Grant to run a series of seminars exploring Individual Differences in Multisensory Processing: Synaesthesia, Migraine, Sensory Impairment and Aging. These seminars were organised with researchers at University of Essex and University of Bath. This seminar series resulted in a special issue of Multisensory Research. Mary is particularly interested in the possible relationship between mental imagery and synaesthesia.

Recent relevant publications:

  • Spiller, M.J., Harkry, L., McCullagh, F., Thoma, V., Jonas, C. (2019) Exploring the relationship between grapheme colour-picking consistency and mental imagery. Philosophical Transactions B: Biological Sciences, 374 (1787). https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2019.0023
  • Jonas, C., Spiller, M.J., Hibbard, P. (2017) Summation of visual attributes in auditory-visual crossmodal correspondence. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 24, 1104-1112. doi: 10.3758/s13423-016-1215-2.
  • Asad, J., Spiller, M.J., Jonas, C. (2016) Auditory and visual crossmodal correspondences with haptically perceived liquid viscosity, Multisensory Research, 29, 8, 727-747
  • Spiller, M.J., Jonas, C.N, Simner, J., Jansari, A. (2015) Beyond visual imagery: How modality-specific is enhanced mental imagery in synesthesia? Consciousness and cognition, 31, 73-85


The role of visual attention in object and face recognition

A long-standing project in Volker Thoma’s research is the role of attention in object perception, and he found evidence that an object’s recognition is mediated by a hybrid representation (view-dependent and part-based) depending on whether a seen object receives visual attention or not. Brain imaging data (with Dr Rik Henson) indicate that while view-based representation components are found in ventral and dorsal object processing streams, part-based representations (depending on attention) appear to be limited to ventral processing areas in the brain. Crucially, both behavioural and imaging data find evidence for processing of objects without attention. Recent collaborations are with Prof John Dylan Haynes (Humboldt University, Berlin) and Prof. Alan Richardson-Klavehn (University of Magdeburg).

Selected publications:

  • Gosling, A.*, Thoma, V.*, De Fockert, J.W., Richardon-Klavehn, A. (2016). Event-Related Potential Effects of Object Repetition Depend on Attention and Part-Whole Configuration. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00478 (*equal contribution)
  • Wakui, E., Thoma, V., De Fockert, J.W. (2016). View-sensitive ERP repetition effects indicate automatic holistic processing of spatially unattended objects. Neuropsychologia, 89, 426–436
  • Guggenmos, M., Thoma V., Haynes J-D., Richardson-Klavehn, A., Cichy, R.M., Sterzer P., (2015). Spatial attention enhances object coding in local and distributed representations of the lateral occipital complex. NeuroImage, 149–157. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.04.004.
  • Stein, T.*, Thoma, V.*, Sterzer, P. (2015). Priming of object detection under continuous flash suppression depends on attention but not on part-whole configuration. Journal of Vision. 15(3):15, 1-11. (*equal contribution)

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Typical and atypical face processing

Prof. Volker Thoma, Dr. Elley Wakui and Dr. Davide Rivolta’s ( now at University of Bari) work aims to characterize the cognitive and neural aspects of typical and atypical human face processing. Their research finds that face (and object) perception (but not memory) can be enhanced using non-invasive brain stimulation (tACS). Volker Thoma’s research found that when perceptual load is high (e.g., many objects in a visual scene make it difficult to find an object, like your car in a full parking lot) then irrelevant information (e.g., a shopping trolley) is easy to ignore, because your attentional capacity is used up by scanning many cars. Surprisingly, this is not the case for faces – it seems that face-capacity is category-specific – only if you look for a face among many faces will task irrelevant faces be ignored.


Recent Relevant Publications
  • Gonzalez-Perez, M., Wakui, E., Thoma, V., Nitsche, M. A., & Rivolta, D. (2019). Transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) at 40 Hz enhances face and object perception. Neuropsychologia, 107237. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31655161
  • Thoma, V., & De Fockert, J.W. (2018). Three-quarter views of depth-rotated faces induce face-specific capacity limits in visual search. Experimental Psycholog, 65(6), 360–369. https://doi.org/10.1027/1618-3169/a000421
  • Costantino, A. I., Titoni, M., Bossi, F., Premoli, I., Nitsche, M. A., & Rivolta, D. (2017). Preliminary Evidence of ?Other-Race Effect?-Like Behavior Induced by Cathodal-tDCS over the Right Occipital Cortex, in the Absence of Overall Effects on Face/Object Processing. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 11. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2017.00661.C-1
  • Thoma, V., & Lavie, N. (2013). Perceptual load effects on processing distractor faces indicate face-specific capacity limits. Visual Cognition, 21(8), 1053–1076.doi:10.1080/13506285.2013.853717

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Brain stimulation and physiological basis of judgment and decision-making

Prof. Thoma investigates the role of the frontal cortex in judgment and decision-making (JDM). One line of research investigates the role of brain stimulation in improving JDM in healthy population and disordered gamblers. Other projects investigate the interplay between thinking dispositions and cognitive reflection abilities (e.g., in financial JDM).
Recent related publications:
  • Edgcumbe, D.R., Thoma, V., Rivolta, D., Nitsche, M.A., Fu, C.H.Y (2019). Anodal transcranial direct current stimulation over the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex enhances reflective judgment and decision-making. Brain Stimulation. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brs.2018.12.003
  • Gomis‐Vicent, E., Thoma, V., Turner, J. J., Hill, K. P., & Pascual‐Leone, A. (2019). Non‐invasive brain stimulation in behavioral addictions: insights from direct comparisons with substance use disorders. The American journal on addictions. https://repository.uel.ac.uk/item/8707w
  • Broyd, A., Ettinger, U., & Thoma, V. (2019). Thinking dispositions and cognitive reflection performance in schizotypy. Judgment and Decision Making, 14(1), 80. http://journal.sjdm.org/vol14.1.html
  • Thoma, V., & Patsalos, O. (2019). Water Supplementation after dehydration increases judgment and decision-making performance. Psychological Research. 1-12. doi.org/10.1007/s00426-018-1136-y

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Expertise, heuristics and risk perception in consumer psychology and user experience

Volker Thoma’s work on consumer choice showed that the familiarity of products or objects is a major determinant of preferential choice even additional information about them was negative, a finding that was recently independently replicated. Volker also investigates risk perception and decision styles in experts, such as professional traders (previously funded by Eclipse Energy Partners), pension trustees (with City University and Leeds Business School) and non-experts. With Dr Paul Rodway (Chester) Volker investigates the role of heuristics such as the spatial location of products or the familiarity of brands using eye-tracking. A further line of work investigates thinking processes in human factors (online user experience and work organisation).

Recent related publications:
  • Weiss-Cohen, L., Ayton, P., Clacher, I., Thoma, V. (2019). Behavioral biases in pension fund trustees’ decision making. Review of Behavioral Finance. https://doi.org/10.1108/RBF-05-2018-0049
  • Jones, A., & Thoma, V. (2019). Determinants for successful Agile collaboration between UX designers and software developers in a large organisation. International Journal of Human Computer Interaction, 35 (20), 1914-1935. https://doi.org/10.1080/10447318.2019.1587856
  • Rodway, P., Schepman, A., & Thoma, V. (2016). Reachability does not explain the middle preference: a comment on Bar-Hillel (2015; Position Effects in Choice from Simultaneous Displays: A Conundrum Solved. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(4): 419-433). i-Perception.1-5
  • Thoma, V. White, E., Panigrahi, A., Strowger, V., Anderson, I. (2015). Good thinking or gut feeling? Cognitive reflection and intuition in traders, bankers and financial non-experts. PLoS ONE 10(4):e0123202. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0123202
  • Thoma, V., & Williams, A. (2013). The devil you know: the effect of brand recognition and product ratings on consumer choice. Judgment and Decision Making, 8, 34–44. http://journal.sjdm.org/12/12703/jdm12703.html

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How does depression affect the brain?

At the present time, how we identify depression is based on what the individual is able to describe and show about how they are and what their family and friends describe about them. We do not have any biological measures that can tell us if someone has depression or another form of mental health disorder.

Cynthia Fu’s research focuses on the brain regions affected by depression, how they may change with treatment with psychotherapy antidepressant medication or with talking therapy or pharmacotherapy, and whether we can predict clinical response outcome before the start of treatment.

We know that depression affects many regions in the brain involved in emotion processing, memory, cognition as well as motor functioning. We know that some regions are more commonly affected in depression and that some regions show similar impairments in other disorders.

From this work, Cynthia Fu has been looking at whether we can develop biological markers or ‘biomarkers’ to help us to say what kind of depression someone is experiencing and to predict clinical outcome. Her research has direct translational potential and had led to primary publications in the development of biomarkers for diagnosis and prognosis based on brain imaging.

Recent related publications:
  • Fu, C.H.Y., Fan, Y. & Davatzikos C. (2019). Addressing heterogeneity (and homogeneity) in treatment mechanisms in depression and the potential to develop diagnostic and predictive biomarkers. Neuroimage Clinical, 24, 101997.
  • Sankar, A., Melin, A., Lorenzetti, V., Horton, P., Costafreda, S.G., Fu, C.H.Y. (2018) A systematic review and meta-analysis of the neural correlates of psychological therapies in major depression. Psychiatry Research Neuroimaging. 279, 31-39.
  • Fu, C.H.Y, Costafreda, S.G., Sankar, A., Adams, T.M., Rasenick, M.M., Liu, P., Donati, R., Maglanoc, L.A., Horton, P. & Marangell, L.B. (2015). Prospective multimodal functional and structural neuroimaging investigation of major depressive disorder following treatment with duloxetine. BMC Psychiatry, 15, 82.
  • Sankar, A., Scott, J., Paszkiewicz, A., Giampietro, V.P., Steiner, H., Fu, C.H.Y. (2015) Neural effects of cognitive-behavioural therapy on dysfunctional attitudes in depression. Psychological Medicine 45(7), 1425-33.

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Can neuromodulation treatment help depression and anxiety?

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a form of non-invasive brain stimulation. tDCS delivers a weak direct electric current which modulates neuronal resting membrane potential. tDCS affects how likely neurons will discharge but does not directly cause neurons to discharge.

Cynthia Fu is looking at whether tDCS could be a new first line treatment for depression that can be given at home with research funding from the Rosetrees Trust.

Cynthia Fu and Elley Wakui are also looking at transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) as a potential treatment for anxiety as we know that mindfulness has been associated with brain oscillations in the alpha frequency.

Recent related publications:
  • Mutz, J., Vipulananthan, V., Carter, B., Hurlemann, R., Fu, C.H.Y., Young, A.H. (2019). Comparative efficacy and acceptability of non-surgical brain stimulation for the acute treatment of major depressive episodes in adults: systematic review and network meta-analysis. British Medical Journal, 364, l1079.
  • Mutz, J., Edgcumbe, D.R., Brunoni, A.R. & Fu, C.H.Y. (2018). Efficacy and acceptability of non-invasive brain stimulation for the treatment of adult unipolar and bipolar depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised sham-controlled trials. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 92, 291-303.
  • Edgcumbe, D.R., Thoma, V., Rivolta, D., Nitsche, M.A. & Fu, C.H.Y. (2019). Anodal transcranial direct current stimulation over the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex enhances reflective judgment & decision making. Brain Stimulation, 12(3), 652-658.
  • Lomas, T., Ivtzan, I., Fu, C.H.Y (2015) A systematic review of the neurophysiology of mindfulness on EEG oscillations. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 57, 401-410.

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Semantic effects during object and face naming

Experimental work has shown that when healthy adults retrieve object names, they take longer to name an object if they have earlier named an object from the same semantic category (e.g., vase, followed by jug). Melanie Vitkovitch has used experimental techniques to investigate the nature of types of semantic interference effects, analysing naming times and types of errors. These studies have also shown that naming a printed word can slow down related object naming, although in this case, the effect has not been found to be cumulative. She is also looking at semantic effects during face naming. In this more difficult task, it seems that the build-up of interference takes longer.

Recent relevant publications:
  • Vitkovitch, M., Ghadiri, T. B., & Hersi, F. (2019). Word naming slows picture naming but does not affect cumulative semantic interference. Acta psychologica, 195, 30-38.
  • Seghier, M. L., Hope, T. M., Prejawa, S., Jones, Ō. P., Vitkovitch, M., & Price, C. J. (2015). A trade-off between somatosensory and auditory related brain activity during object naming but not reading. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(11), 4751-4759.

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Understanding Belief in the Paranormal

Paranormal is a term used to describe events, phenomena, or abilities which lie beyond the scope of our current scientific understanding. Anna Stone’s current research projects seek to understand how paranormal belief arises and is maintained, considering the question from a number of psychological viewpoints: social, developmental, and cognitive.
Recent publications include a new and wide-ranging questionnaire measure of paranormal belief and a book co-authored with Prof Chris French.


Recent Relevant Publications
  • Stone, A. & McDermott, M. (2018) Development and validation of the multi-dimensional questionnaire of scientifically unsubstantiated beliefs. Personality and Individual Differences, 128, 146-156.
  • French, C.C. & Stone, A. (2014) Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience. Palgrave MacMillan. Available from: http://www.palgrave.com/books/

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Attitudes to people with facial disfigurement

Facial disfigurement affects approximately one in a 111 people, with causes including burns, scars, after-effects of surgery, congenital conditions, and birthmarks. People with facial disfigurement can experience negative reactions from the general public and are disadvantaged in education and in employment.

Anna Stone’s current projects seek to understand the basis of negative assumptions about people with facial disfigurement and to investigate specific interventions that can help to combat prejudice and lead to equality and inclusion. If you are interested in taking part in research please contact A.Stone@uel.ac.uk.

Recent relevant publications
  • Stone, A. & Fisher, V. (2020) Changing negative perceptions of individuals with facial disfigurement: the effectiveness of a brief intervention. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, (available online)
  • Stone, A. & Potton, A. (2019) Emotional responses to disfigured faces and disgust sensitivity: An eye-tracking study. Journal of Health Psychology, 24, 1191-1200. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105317692856
  • Stone, A. & Potton, A. (2014) Emotional responses to disfigured faces: the influences of perceived anonymity, empathy, and disgust sensitivity. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36, 520-532. DOI: 10.1080/01973533.2014.958491
  • Stone, A., & Wright, T. (2013). When your face doesn’t fit: employment discrimination against people with facial disfigurements. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(3), 515–526. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2013.01032.x

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The interplay of overt attention and memory formation in healthy and pathological ageing

Dr. Moreno Coco’s current research focuses on neuro-degenerative diseases such as Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer Dementia (AD), and, on predicting their onset early enough to anticipate treatment to ameliorate their detrimental impact. People facing with neurodegenerative diseases often display dysfunctional memory processes. Despite evidence on young adults about the cognitive mechanisms involved in the formation of memory, research in healthy and pathological ageing on this important topic is still lagging. In particular, substantial research should be devoted to understanding: (a) the use of contextual information during short and long-term memory processes, (b) the impact that stimulus properties, behavioural and neural responses bear on substantiating such processes, as well as, use this knowledge to design novel diagnostic tools aimed at detecting the onset of neurodegenerative diseases yet in the prodromal stage. This work has received funding by the Leverhulme Trust and by the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia.

Recent Relevant Publications
  • M.I. Coco, A. Nuthmann and O. Dimigen (2020). Fixation-related brain potential during semantic integration of object-scene information. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 32(4), 571-589.
  • F. Cimminella, S. Della Sala and M.I. Coco (2020). Extra-foveal processing of object semantics guides early overt attention during visual search. Attention, Perception and & Psychophysics, 82, 655-670
  • M.T. Borges, E.G, Fernandes and M.I. Coco (2020). Age-related differences during visual search: the role of contextual expectations and top-down control mechanisms. Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition, 27 (4), 489-516
  • • M.I. Coco, T. Brady, G. Merendino, G. Zappala', A. Baddeley, and S. Della Sala (2018), Forgetting in normal and pathological ageing as a function of semantic interference, Alzheimer's and Dementia, 14(7), 915-916

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Pain perception and pain modulation

Matteo Martini’s work focuses on the study of human pain perception and pain modulation in relation to the activation of other sensory channels. Visual, tactile or even visuo-vestibular cues are the possible ‘pain modulators’ considered in his studies. Experimentally-induced acute pain states are induced to study the possible analgesic effects of cross-modal stimulations, with the future aim to develop non-pharmacological treatments. In his lab Dr. Martini and his coworkers induce pain via a thermode attached to a machine (a TSA 2 - Quantitative NeuroSensory Analyzer) which can deliver both cold and hot stimuli. Different stimulation paradigms can be taken into account and, along with the participants’ responses, brain responses (for instance via EEG) can be recorded too. Different projects have been run so far, with or without the aid of virtual reality and ‘virtual embodiment’.


Recent Relevant Publications
  • Daniel A, Leon B, Martini M. (2020). Pain modulation by illusory body rotation: a new way to disclose the interaction between the vestibular system and pain processing. Eur J Pain. (Accepted)
  • Gordon C, Barbullushi A, Tombolini S, Margiotta F, Ciacci A, Yosef LS, Barker L, Martini M. (2019). Visuo-tactile stimulation, but not type of movement, modulates pain during the vision of a moving virtual limb. Pain Manag. 9(5):449-460. doi: 10.2217/pmt-2019-0019.
  • Zanini, A., Montalti, M., Caola, B., Leadbetter, A., Martini, M. (2017). Pain during illusory own arm movement: a study in immersive virtual reality. Eur Med J. 2[2]:90-97.

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Object and word recognition in dyslexia

Dr Mary-Jane Budd investigates neural correlates of object and word identification in dyslexics, using experimental/EEG methodology.

Recent Relevant Publications
  • Clashes, H., Paulmann, S., Budd, M-J., & Barry, C. (2018). Morphological encoding beyond slots and fillers: An ERP study of comparative formation in English. PLOS ONE.
  • Hanley, J. R., Cortis, C., Budd, M.-J., & Nozari, N. (2015). Did I say dog or cat? A study of semantic error detection and correction in children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 142, 36–47. C3

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