Research

Developmental psychology

Uncovering individual developmental paths

We change dramatically over the course of our lives. Development isn’t complete when we reach adulthood; it’s a lifelong endeavour. Consider the different thoughts, abilities and behaviours of an infant versus a school-aged child, and you’ll understand the massive and rapid intellectual and cognitive changes that occur over an individual’s lifespan.

Developmental psychology studies a range of developmental stages, skills and abilities. We seek to understand how people progress through psychological development throughout their lifespan, such as social skills or memory. Our research investigates different developmental paths for individuals with conditions such as autism or Parkinson’s and how we can encourage individuals to develop and age along their optimal path.

Research laboratories

Developmental psychology researchers work across the following laboratories.

FaceLab

Woman pulling different faces

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).

 

Join us

If you are interested in joining the lab or taking part in an experiment, email Libby Taylor.

 

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Lifespan Development Laboratory

Seniors socialisingThe Lifespan Development Group and the West Australian Participant Pool is the home of volunteers and researchers interested in the path of emotional and mental ageing.

The Lifespan Lab conducts research into typical and abnormal ageing. Typical ageing research is conducted within the Healthy Ageing Research Project and in collaboration with the Busselton Health Study.

Abnormal ageing research (e.g. Parkinson’s, sleep apnoea and Alzheimer’s) is conducted in collaboration with the Sleep Clinic at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, with the Parkinson’s Centre (ParkC) at Curtin, and with the McCusker Alzheimer’s Research Centre.

Healthy Ageing Research Project (HARP)

Project HARP is the umbrella name for a series of programmatic research projects focused on typical ageing. HARP is directed by Romola Bucks, Michael Weinborn and Brandon Gavett. Projects have included evaluating predictors of independent functioning in healthy ageing individuals, and exploring the cognitive and neurological burden of sleep disturbance. All projects involve assessment of cognitive and emotional functioning, as well as functional outcomes.

Our research is supported by the kind contribution of volunteers from the West Australian Participant Pool (WAPP), directed by Romola Bucks. WAPP volunteers are community adults, over 50 years of age, who agree to be contacted regarding participation in one or more of the Lifespan Lab's research studies.

To learn more about becoming a volunteer for this research project, read the information sheet:

West Australian Participant Pool (WAPP)

The West Australian Participant Pool (WAPP) is the home of volunteers aged 50 and over who help researchers understand emotional and mental changes in ageing.

We are interested in studying normal ageing for several reasons. We believe if we understand the ageing process better, we may be able to assist older adults in living independently for longer, as well as lead to a general understanding of the human mind.

We look at responses to emotions and emotional situations as we age and how memory changes with age. Since some research suggests not all mental functions decline with age, we are interested in finding ones which might not decline, decline less or improve with age. We also believe a greater understanding of normal, healthy ageing will help in the early diagnosis of diseases such as Alzheimer's.

The research we conduct aims to increase our knowledge of the mind, but most importantly it aims to determine how getting older affects people in their day-to-day lives and how we can maintain independent functioning in older adults in practical ways.

To learn more about joining our pool of volunteers and helping us understand healthy ageing, read the information sheet.

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Neurocognitive Development Unit (NDU)

Woman with a child looking at a laptopThe 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.

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Parent and Child Laboratory

As children develop, they face a range of social, emotional, and behavioural challenges.

Mental health professionals have developed a range of interventions to address the varying needs of children, and decades of research attest to their value in improving child wellbeing. However, simply having programs available does not mean that parents and children will access and engage with them.

Only about a third of families initially engage in interventions, and of these, about half drop out. There is a range of reasons why parents do – and do not – seek and engage in help for their child, and knowing these will enable us to better plan accessible interventions in the future.

In the Parent and Child Lab, we are interested in researching questions that relate to these aspects of child development, parenting and interventions, such as:

  • Understanding the range of mental health and social challenges that children can experience, and how they come to develop these challenges.
  • Understanding how children get to therapy, and the barriers families face in doing so.
  • Parents’ perspectives and experiences in how they support their children.
  • Stigma that parents and children with mental health problems face, and how they cope with this stigma.

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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).

Perception

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? 

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Prosopagnosia Research

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.

Australian Prosopagnosia Register

For more information about prosopagnosia and our current research see below:

Participant Information and Consent Form (PDF 68KB)

Find out more

Working Memory Laboratory

Child doing school work

The Working Memory Laboratory investigates the factors underlying individual and developmental differences in working memory and the relationship between working memory and higher-level cognitive performance and educational achievement.

We are also interested in social and emotional wellbeing in children and how this relates to cognitive and educational achievement.

Current research areas include:

  • Visual and verbal short-term consolidation in both adults and children, including the developmental trajectory of this process, and how it relates to working memory and educational achievement.
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of working memory and self-talk training programs.
  • The developmental trajectory of social vulnerability in children, including the cognitive underpinnings that are associated with social vulnerability and the social consequences of social vulnerability.
  • The relationship between educational and mental health outcomes for Western Australian children and the developmental pathways to educational achievement in Western Australian children.

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