Biological psychology and cognitive neuroscience
Combining modern tools of neuroscience with psychological tools to analyse behaviour
Ever wondered how the brain processes the flood of input constantly streaming in from the environment?
What about how perception is translated into action? And how does our brain produce memories, emotions and conscious experiences?
Our research combines the modern tools of neuroscience (brain imaging, brain stimulation, and recording of brain electrical and haemodynamic activity) with subtle psychological tools to analyse behaviour. We’re interested in healthy functioning as well as the impact of neuropathology on cognition, perception, emotion and action.
Biological psychology and cognitive neuroscience researchers work across the following laboratories:
- Attention and Human Behaviour Laboratory
Our research is at the interface between key human cognitive abilities, such as attention and multitasking, and human behaviours across a variety of situations.
Over a century of 'basic' experimental research has taught us a lot about human cognition and perception, as well as their underlying neural mechanisms. However, we know much less about how these abilities differ across individuals and groups, or how these abilities influence everyday behaviours, like driving, or performance in specialised jobs, like the military or air-traffic control.
The goal of our work is to answer these questions by breaking through traditional divides between basic and applied research, and to focus on building a reciprocal relationship in which basic research can guide practical questions, and practical outcomes can give new insights into basic processes.
- Cognition and Emotion
Clinical theorists have attributed emotional disorders to cognitive idiosyncrasies, while cognitive theorists have developed models which suggest emotional states will be associated with pervasive information processing biases throughout the cognitive system.
Both clinical and cognitive models of emotional disorders predict the existence of processing biases favouring emotionally congruent information in attention, comprehension and memory.
Current research uses cognitive-experimental paradigms to test hypotheses arising from these models, and focuses on several related questions including:
- To what extent are such biases automatic?
- What is the relative involvement of state and trait variables?
- Do information processing biases mediate emotional reaction to valenced stimuli?
- Is susceptibility to mood congruent information processing biases a vulnerability factor for emotional disorders?
Research in the Cognition and Emotion Lab is currently undertaken through the Elizabeth Rutherford Memorial Centre for the Advancement of Research on Emotion (CARE).CARE website
Faces convey a wealth of information that guides our social interactions. At a glance we can assess a person’s identity, gender, ethnicity, age, attractiveness, emotional state and focus of attention.
This fluency is remarkable given the difficulty of the discriminations required. We are studying the perceptual, cognitive and evolutionary mechanisms underlying this face processing expertise.
The FaceLab also hosts the Person Perception Program of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders (CCD).
If you are interested in joining the lab or taking part in an experiment, email Libby Taylor.
Academic research staff:
- Human Vision Laboratory
Vision has a central role in our relationship with the world and the way we see determines how we are able to interact with the environment. The focus of our research is on human visual performance and has concentrated on the processes involved in extracting motion, pattern and position information.
Currently the laboratory is running long-term projects examining:
- how humans perceive both the speed and direction of the type of motion produced by moving through the environment
- the processes that allow us to determine the location of objects within the environment
- the processes that allow us to determine the large-scale structure of the visual world and also how these processes are altered in migraine, glaucoma and autism
- Memory and Cognition Laboratory
Research in the Memory and Cognition Laboratory investigates human memory and reasoning, using mainly behavioural experimentation and computational modelling.
The main topics of interest are:
- Memory updating: How do we maintain an accurate representation of an ever-changing world?
- Misinformation effects: How does incorrect information affect memory, reasoning and decision-making even after it has been corrected?
- Forgetting: Why do we forget some things but not others?
- Neurocognitive Development Unit (NDU)
The Neurocognitive Development Unit (NDU) was established by UWA and the School of Psychological Science in 2009.
We study typically developing children and how their intellectual abilities change (we also have a parallel interest in how these abilities change with advanced ageing) and how these abilities are related to their emotional development (e.g. empathy) and their social abilities.
The engine room of the NDU is Children's Activity Programme (CAP). Our empirical investigations involve behavioural assessments of cognitive abilities and utilise techniques from experimental psychology and standard methods of cognitive neuropsychology. Because we are interested in how the brain influences development, we also use modern neuroscientific measurement techniques – principally EEG and MRI – as well as trying to develop more cutting-edge approaches such as functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS).
We have a diversity of interests and approaches but with one central goal: To develop theories of the neurocognitive basis of typical and atypical development through the scientific investigation of developmental change in cognitive, emotional and social abilities and their differential manifestation in special populations.
The target of this empirical work is to develop a theory of the neurocognitive architecture of the developing mind. We also take the approach that we should formalise and test our theories using computational modelling. It is in this general context that we examine atypical development (children with autism, children with ADHD, children born extremely prematurely, children with early onset type-I diabetes) so that we can better understand the nature of these conditions and they can inform our theories.
Finally, we are not naive about the impact that cultural forces can have on neurocognitive development, and with this in mind and given our own cultural context, we have a growing interest in examining development in Indigenous populations.
- Person and Emotion Perception Laboratory (PEPLab)
Our research aims to understand the perceptual, cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying person perception.
This often involves studying faces, as they provide information about the identity, age, sex, race, attractiveness and mood of other people, but also involves studying the perception of bodies and voices.
In addition to our work with typically developing children and adults, our lab investigates person perception in children and adults with atypical development, psychopathology or brain injury. This includes studies of developmental disorders affecting face processing (congenital/developmental prosopagnosia and autism); neuropsychological studies of people with brain injuries affecting face identity recognition (acquired prosopagnosia) and expression recognition (amygdala/orbitofrontal cortex lesions); and investigations into psychopathology affecting person perception (social anxiety, callous-unemotional traits).
Our research to date has addressed three main questions:
- What is the role of visual attention in face perception?
- Why can't some children and adults recognise facial identity?
- How do we discriminate facial expressions?
- Lab director: Associate Professor Romina Palermo
- Website: Romina’s personal academic homepage
Interested in participating in research?
Our current understanding of prosopagnosia is only limited, and further research is needed to clarify the nature of this rare condition. If you or any of your family members are experiencing face recognition difficulties, and if you're interested in participating in research, please register with us.
For more information about prosopagnosia and our current research see below:
Participant Information and Consent Form (PDF 68KB)
- Sensory Neuroscience Attention and Perception (SNAP) Laboratory
Research interests within the SNAP Lab involves three distinct arms – visual perception, clinical research and sensory neuroscience. Current projects in each of these areas are described below.
Enquiries about any SNAP Lab projects below should be directed to head of SNAP lab Dr Jason Bell.
Research in this area considers how the human visual system processes shapes and objects for recognition. Recognition is accomplished through the coordinated activation of distinct brain regions. Projects seek to discover what information is represented at each stage of processing.
Current research interests include:
- Studying the role of hemispheric specialisation in the processing of symmetry.
- The time course of visual perception. How fast and for how long do discrete visual mechanisms process content?
- The properties of the mechanisms processing visual number.
- Serial dependencies in visual perception. How and when is past information used in the processing of the present?
Dr. Jason Bell is interested in studying abnormalities of perception within particular groups. Together with associate professors Elizabeth Rieger (ANU) and Dr Susan Byrne (UWA), they are undertaking research to understand the relationship between biases in perception and or attention, and eating disorder symptomology, or obesity.
Current research interests include:
- Attentional biases to high and low calorie foods or to particular body shapes.
- Biases in the perceived healthiness of foods, or in the perceived size of female bodies.
- Attentional retraining procedures to reduce or null maladaptive processing strategies in relation to the above visual cues.
Together with Associate Professor Carmela Pestell (UWA), they are conducting studies to better our understanding of the relationship between ADHD and altered time perception.
Current research interests include:
- studies retraining timing abilities
- studies examining the role of emotional regulation in ADHD symptomology and time perception
Understanding functional specialisation in the brain is a fundamental goal of neuroscience and psychology. The lab currently offers opportunities to study the effects of neurosynchronisation and of non-invasive cortical stimulation on perception and behaviour.
Current research projects and collaborations are utilising:
- Neuroscience techniques such as transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS to investigate the correlates of attention and perception.
- Neurosynchronisation techniques to understand the role of rhythmic brain activity in various aspects of attention, perception and action, with a focus on theta and alpha bands.
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Telethon Kids Institute
Staff at UWA Psychological Science collaborate extensively with the Telethon Kids Institute in research on:
- biological and neuropsychological factors implicated in the development of disorders such as autism, ADHD, FASD and language disorders;
- early identification and intervention for these disorders;
- psychological and social outcomes for children with developmental disorders and their families, and;
- the experiences of diverse youth and how this impacts on their development.
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Professor Colin MacLeod
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Winthrop Professor David Badcock
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Associate Professor Carmela Pestell
Associate Professor Carmela Pestell is a clinician, researcher and lecturer in clinical psychology and neuropsychology, and Director of the Robin Winkler ClinicRead more about Associate Professor Carmela Pestell