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Cognition and Neuroscience Research Group

Current Projects

  • Exploring atypical perceptual and sensory experiences
  • Synaesthesia, multisensory perception and numerical cognition
  • The role of visual attention in object recognition
  • Face and non-face object processing under perceptual load
  • Heuristics and risk perception in decision-making and user experience
  • Brain regions affected by depression
  • Semantic effects during object and face naming
  • Understanding paranormal beliefs
  • Attitudes to people with facial disfigurement
  • Typical and atypical face processing

Exploring atypical perceptual and sensory experiences

Mary 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 Spiller (with Clare Jonas) has recently been awarded a British Psychological Society Research Seminar Grant to run a series of seminars exploring Individual Differences in Multisensory Processing: Synaesthesia, Migrane, Sensory Impairment and Aging. These seminars will be run with researchers at University of Essex and University of Bath.

Recent related publications


Banissy, M.J., Holle, H., Cassell, J., Annett, L., Tsakanikos, E., Walsh, V., Spiller, M.J., & Ward, J. (2013). Personality traits in people with synaesthesia: Do synaesthetes have an atypical personality profile?. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(7), 828-813.
Pasqualotto, A., Spiller, M.J., Jansari, A. S., & Proulx, M.J. (2013). Visual experience facilitates allocentric spatial representation. Behavioural Brain Research, 236(1), 175–179. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2012.08.042
Simner, J., Mayo, N., & Spiller, M.J. (2009). A foundation for savantism? Visuo-spatial synaesthetes present with cognitive benefits. Cortex, 45, 1246–1260. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2009.07.007


Synaesthesia, multisensory perception and numerical cognition

Dr Jonas current projects include work with Dr Mary Spiller on the potential positive effect on memory of 'training' synaesthesia in the general population; a collaboration with Dr Spiller and Dr Paul Hibbard of the University of Essex on the effects of cross-modal congruency on multisensory illusions and the potential links between synaesthesia and other unusual sensory experiences such as migraine; and a collaboration with Prof. Jamie Ward and Dr Alice de Visscher of the University of Sussex on the effect of synaesthesia on numerical cognition.

Recent related publications

Jonas, C., & Jarick, M. (2013). Synesthesia, sequences, and space. In J. Simner & E. M. Hubbard (Eds), Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia (pp.123-149). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jonas, C. N., Spiller, M. J., Jansari, A., & Ward, J. (in press). Comparing implicit and synaesthetic number-space associations: visuospatial and verbal SNARC effects. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Jonas, C. N., Taylor, A. J., Hutton, S., Weiss, P. H., & Ward, J. (2011). Visuo‐spatial representations of the alphabet in synaesthetes and non‐synaesthetes. Journal of Neuropsychology, 5(2), 302-322.



The role of visual attention in object 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).

Recent Relevant Publications

Thoma, V., & Henson, R.N. (2011). Object representations in ventral and dorsal visual streams: fMRI repetition effects depend on attention and part–whole configuration. NeuroImage, 57(2), 513–525. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.04.035
Thoma, V., Davidoff, J., & Hummel, J. E. (2007). Priming of plane-rotated objects depends on attention and view familiarity. Visual Cognition, 15(2), 179–210. doi:10.1080/13506280500155627


Face and non-face object processing under perceptual load

How does our brain pick out the visual information it needs or wants from the environment and ignore what is irrelevant? 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. If perceptual load is low, you will find your car quickly, but it will be hard to ignore irrelevant objects. Surprisingly, this is not the case for faces – no matter how many cars in the parking lot, you will always process the face of someone there. It seems that face-capacity is category-specific – only if you look for a face among many faces will your visual system ignore another face.

Recent Relevant Publications

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
Lavie, N., Zokai, N., Zhicheng, L., & Thoma, V. (2009). The role of perceptual load in object recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 35(5), 1346–1358. doi:10.1037/a0016454


Heuristics and risk perception in decision-making and user experience

Volker Thoma’s work on consumer choice recently showed that the familiarity of products or objects is a major determinant of preferential choice even additional information about them was negative. Volker also investigates risk perception and decision styles in experts, such as professional traders (previously funded by Eclipse Energy Partners) 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 styles when users evaluate usability of web=pages.

Recent Relevant Publications

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
Thoma, V., White, E.P. (2011). In two minds about usability? Rationality and intuition in usability evaluation. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol. 6946, pp. 544–547. Springer, Heidelberg. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-23768-3_78



Brain regions affected by depression

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

Selected Publications

  • Fu CH, Steiner H, Costafreda SG. Predictive neural biomarkers of clinical response in depression: A meta-analysis of functional and structural neuroimaging studies of pharmacological and psychological therapies. Neurobiol Dis. 2013; 52:75-83. doi:10.1016/j.nbd.2012.05.008
  • Nouretdinov I, Costafreda SG, Gammerman A, Chervonenkis A, Vovk V, Vapnik V, Fu CH. Machine learning classification with confidence: application of transductive conformal predictors to MRI-based diagnostic and prognostic markers in depression. Neuroimage. 2011; 56:809-13. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.05.023
  • Fu CHY, Mourao-Miranda J, Costafreda SG, Khanna A, Marquand A, Williams SCR, Brammer MJ. Pattern classification of sad facial processing: toward the development of neurobiological markers in depression. Biol Psychiatry 2008; 63:656-62.
Recent Presentations

  • 2014: British Association for Psychopharmacology Annual Meeting, 20-23.07, Symposium Lead: Predictors of clinical response in psychiatric disorders. Presentation: Neuroimaging-based predictors of clinical response in depression.
  • 2014: Royal College of Psychiatrists International Congress 24-27.06, Symposium Lead: How can we personalise psychotherapy in the NHS? Presentation: Potential neuroimaging prognostic markers for psychotherapy.


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). One particularly interesting effect which is being explored by a number of international researchers concerns the successive naming of several objects from the same category; each retrieval takes a little longer than the previous one (cumulative semantic interference).

Melanie Vitkovitch has used experimental techniques to investigate the nature of these 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.

Understanding semantic interference effects such as these is important, because picture naming is a key neuropsychological test. Individuals with brain impairments often make errors or are particularly slow when naming pictures, and especially faces. Melanie is also now looking at individual differences in semantic interference effects, and how performance on semantic naming tasks might relate to other cognitive abilities, such as inhibitory tasks, speed of processing and working memory.

Recent relevant publications

Vitkovitch, M., & Cooper, E. (2012). My word! Interference from reading object names implies a role for competition during picture name retrieval. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65, 1229 - 1240
Vitkovitch, M., & Cooper-Pye, E. (2010). The long and the short of it! Presenting all prime words before target pictures at two different inter-stimulus intervals. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 22, 161 - 171
Understanding paranormal beliefs

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. Her research uses questionnaires and simple experimental tasks.

Popular types of paranormal phenomena include telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, ghosts, alien abductions. Belief in these phenomena is common in the general population even though they are not (as yet) supported by rigorous experimental evidence and there are no scientific explanations. Studies over the last couple of decades have consistently found between 20% and 40% (or sometimes even more) of the population believing in these phenomena.

It is important to study paranormal beliefs, because there are sometimes costs and consequences. For example, individuals may follow inappropriate advice, or neglect to take sensible steps to safeguard their health and welfare in favour of other actions.

Contact Anna Stone if you are interested in taking part in research A.Stone@uel.ac.uk

Recent Relevant Publications
  • French, C.C. & Stone, A. (2014) Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience. Palgrave MacMillan. Available from: http://www.palgrave.com/books/
  • Stone, A. (2013). An avowal of prior scepticism enhances the credibility of an account of a paranormal event. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, doi:10.1177/0261927X13512115

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. A disfigurement to the face has a particularly strong impact because of the importance of the face in social interaction; it is hard to talk to someone without looking at their face. People with facial disfigurement can experience negative reactions from the general public and are disadvantaged in education and in employment. It is possible to challenge prejudice and discrimination and to change public attitudes towards people with an unusual appearance. To do this, we need to understand the causes of negative reactions so that we can devise effective interventions.

Anna Stone’s current projects seek to understand the basis of negative assumptions about people with facial disfigurement and to investigate under what circumstances these assumptions have the greatest impact. We are looking at specific interventions that can help to combat prejudice and lead to equality and inclusion for people with facial disfigurement, working in conjunction with the charity Changing Faces. Research is conducted using questionnaires and simple experimental tasks.

Recent relevant publications


  • 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
  • Stone, A., & Wright, T. (2012). Evaluations of people depicted with facial disfigurement compared to those with mobility impairment. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 34, 212–225. doi:10.1080/01973533.2012.674420
Contact us

If you are interested in taking part in research please contact A.Stone@uel.ac.uk

Typical and atypical face processing

Davide Rivolta’s work aims to characterize the cognitive and neural aspects of typical and atypical human face processing. In addition, by writing two books on the topic, he is working on improving the awareness of prosopagnosia in the general public.

Recent Relevant Publications

  • Rivolta, D., Palermo R. & Schmalzl, L. (2013). What is overt and what is covert in congenital prosopagnosia? Neuropsychology Review 23(2), 111-116.
  • Rivolta, D., Palermo, R., Schmalzl, L., & Coltheart, M. (2012). Covert face recognition in congenital prosopagnosia: A Group Study. Cortex 48(3), 344-352.
  • Rivolta, D., Schmalzl, L., Palermo, R., & Williams, M. A. (2012). Investigating the features of the M170 in congenital prosopagnosia. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 6:45. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00045