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The Cognitive Basis of Social Communication and Ageing

A vital part of everyday social interaction is the ability to infer information about others (e.g. their emotions, visual perspective, and language). Development of these social skills (termed Theory of Mind, ToM) has been linked to improvements in more general cognitive skills, called Executive Functions (EF). However, to date very little is known of how this link varies with advancing age, and no model exists to explain the relationship. Thus, the key aim of the proposed research is to systematically explore the cognitive basis of social communication and how this changes across the life-span.

The research will address three complementary questions:

  1. To what degree can variations in ToM ability across the life-span be accounted for by changes in EF skills?
  2. How do ToM ability and EF skill change over time in different age groups (using longitudinal methods, i.e. test-retest of the same participants)?
  3. Can ToM ability be enhanced through training specific EF skills, and how do these training effects differ across the life-span?

We will employ an interdisciplinary approach that links theory and practice from cognitive, social, developmental, and clinical (neuro)psychology to study the relationship between ToM and EF across a broad and dynamic age range (10 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 timecourse of social understanding, and model how it relates to EF and more general cognitive/social skills (e.g. IQ, language) within and between individuals.

Related projects

Learning from fiction: a philosophical and psychological study (2018-2021)
This project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between philosophy and psychology that seeks to examine whether and how we learn from fiction. The overarching aim is to develop a collaborative, interdisciplinary project that will formulate significant claims about learning from fiction, and devise experiments that address the literary features of texts. In particular, we ask whether and how exposure to fiction modulates (i) Empathy (Does reading fiction improve our moral sensitivity to others’ feelings in ethically positive ways?), (ii) Psychological insight (Does fiction enable us to understand other people’s minds, or is it apt to generate false attributions?), (iii) Beliefs and attitudes (Does fiction enhance our understanding of the world, or generate false or irrational views?), and (iv) Imaginative capacities (Does engaging with fiction exercise our imaginations in beneficial ways?). The research is funded by a Leverhulme Trust grant, awarded to Professor Greg Currie (PI, University of York), Dr Stacie Friend (Birkbeck), and Dr Heather Ferguson.

Imagining the self in fictional worlds: evidence from Autism Spectrum Disorder (2015-2019)
The project seeks to understand the cognitive processes that underlie communication in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by examining understanding of “counterfactual” events (hypothetical events that are counter to reality; e.g. ‘If I had won the lottery’). It will investigate two important factors that are likely to influence one’s ability to think counterfactually- imagination and self-representation- both of which are known to be impaired in ASD. The research is funded by a Leverhulme Trust grant, awarded to Dr Heather Ferguson (PI) and Dr David Williams (University of Kent).

The impact of alcohol, alcohol environments and alcohol rumination on social perspective-taking ability (2015-2016)
This project examines the impact of alcohol, alcohol environments, and alcohol rumination on perspective-taking ability, and how this might explain the relationship between alcohol and problematic social behaviour. The research is funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research grant, awarded to Dr James Cane (PI, London Southbank University) and Dr Heather Ferguson.