CogSoCoAGE: Tracking the cognitive basis of social communication across the life-span

This interdisciplinary project aims to investigate the cognitive basis of social communication and how it changes across the life span (from ten to 90 years old). It will also explore how to enhance social communication, with potential implications for educational settings. 

More about Professor Heather Ferguson
More about the project


This is a five-year research project based at the University of Kent’s School of Psychology, funded by a European Research Council Starting grant awarded to Professor Heather Ferguson. It is an interdisciplinary research project that aims to investigate the cognitive basis of social communication, and how this changes across the life span (from ten to 90 years old). This research is particularly important and timely given the significant negative consequences of impairments in social communication. For example, misunderstanding another person’s meaning or intentions can cause one to take offence or restrict further interactions. Indeed, difficulties in social communication mediate a substantial decline in social participation in older adults, which in turn leads to isolation, loneliness and poor health. 

CogSoCoAGE seeks to gain a fuller understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that underlie healthy development, ageing and social communication, and to explore promising new protocols to enhance the quality of social communication in older adults (thus improving their mental health and well-being) by training these cognitive skills. Establishing success using such an approach would reveal exciting opportunities for the future to apply tailored training methods to clinical populations who suffer impaired social skills (e.g. autism). 

Research objectives 

The research questions were:  

  • To what degree can variations in Theory of Mind ability (the ability to understand that others have beliefs and intentions different from one’s own) across the life span be accounted for by changes in executive skills (cognitive processes that are required for managing our own behaviour and for achieving goals)?
  • How do Theory of Mind ability and executive skills change over time in different age groups (using longitudinal methods, i.e. test-retest of the same participants)?
  • Can Theory of Mind ability be enhanced through training specific EF skills, and how do these training effects differ across the life span? 

Programme and methodology 

We will employ an interdisciplinary approach that links theory and practice from cognitive, social, developmental, and clinical (neuro)psychology to study the relationship between Theory of Mind and Executive Functions across a broad and dynamic age range (ten to 80+ yrs old). We will use cutting-edge combinations of techniques (e.g. eye-tracking and EEG) and paradigms to assess multiple key components of social communication, including emotional states, visual perspective-taking, and high-level inferences about others’ minds. These tasks will be used alongside sophisticated statistical methods that allow us to track the time course of social understanding, and model how it relates to executive functions and more general cognitive/social skills (e.g. IQ, language) within and between individuals.  


Primary findings in bullet points  

  • Brunsdon, V.E.A., Bradford, E.E.F., & Ferguson, H.J. (in press). Sensorimotor mu rhythm during action observation changes across the lifespan independently from social cognitive processes. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.
  • Ferguson, H.J., Brunsdon, V.E.A, & Bradford, E.E.F (2018). Age of avatar modulates the altercentric bias in a visual perspective-taking task: An ERP study. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience. 18(6), 1298-1319
  • Bradford, E., Hukker, V., Smith, L., & Ferguson, H. (2018). Belief-Attribution in Adults with and without Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Autism Research, 11, 1542-1553. doi:10.1002/aur.2032
  • Nieuwland, M., Politzer-Ahles, S., Heyselaar, E., Segaert, K., Von Grebmer Zu Wolfsthurn4S., Bartolozzi, F., Kogan, V., Ito, A., Meziere, D., Barr, D., Rousselet, G., Ferguson, H., Busch-Moreno, S., Fu, X., Tuomainen, J., Kulakova, E., Husband, M., Donaldson, D., Kohut, Z., Rueschmeyer, S., & Huettig, F. (2018). Large-scale replication study reveals a limit on probabilistic prediction in language comprehension. ELife, 7. doi:10.7554/eLife.33468
  • Nieuwland, M., Barr, D., Bartolozzi, F., Busch-Moreno, S., Donaldson, D., Ferguson, H., Fu, X., Heyselaar, E., Huettig, F., Husband, M., Ito, A., kazanina, N., Kogan, V., Kohut, Z., Kulakova, E., Meziere, D., Politzer-Ahles, S., Rousselet, G., Rueschmeyer, S., Segaert, K., Tuomainen, J., & Von Grebmer Zu Wolfsthurn, S. (2019). Dissociable effects of prediction and integration during language comprehension: Evidence from a large-scale study using brain potentials. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. doi:10.1101/267815 

Various research presentations/invited talks, also focusing on adolescence (e.g. see list on project website).  


This project is still ongoing, but aims to offer new information on social communication across the life span. Furthermore, the CogSoCoAGE project will explore how to enhance social communication, which may have important implications for educational settings.