Portrait of Professor Heather Ferguson

Professor Heather Ferguson

Professor of Psychology
Division Director of Research and Innovation
Honorary Secretary for the Experimental Psychology Society


Professor Heather Ferguson completed her PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience and Psycholinguistics at the University of Glasgow in 2007, followed by a two-year postdoctoral research position at University College London. She was appointed as a Lecturer in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Kent in October 2009, and was subsequently promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2012, Reader in 2015, and Professor in 2018.

Over the last few years, Heather has been leading on several research grants, including a five-year European Research Council Starting grant to examine the cognitive basis of social communication and how this changes across the life-span, a four-year Leverhulme Trust research grant to examine how people with autism spectrum disorder make sense of counterfactual versions of the world, and a 3-year Leverhulme Trust research grant to examine whether and how reading fiction enhances our cognitive and social wellbeing.

Research interests

Heather's primary research interest is in Cognitive Psychology. She is particularly interested in the interface between cognitive processes and social interaction, specifically the way that we access and represent other people's perspectives during communication. She uses a variety of techniques, including eye-movements, event-related brain potentials and reaction times to look at questions, such as:

  • How do people understand and predict events in terms of other people"s mental states (e.g. their intentions, beliefs and desires)? And how quickly can they do this? What happens when these intentions, beliefs or desires are at odds with our own knowledge of the world?
  • How do social abilities relate to cognitive skills (such as memory and inhibitory control)? Can social interaction be enhanced by training these cognitive skills? How does advancing age affect this relationship?
  • How does social context (e.g. who we're interacting with, for what purpose etc) influence the language that we produce during an interaction?
  • How do we separate reality from fantasy, and why do they get muddled up sometimes? Are there any social or cognitive benefits of imagining fictional versions of the world?


Please get in touch to discuss research supervision for undergraduate final year projects, MSc research projects, PhD theses or postdoctoral fellowships.


Current PhD supervision

  • Marchella Smith (1st supervisor), Title TBC.
  • Chloe Brunskill (2nd supervisor), Title 'How does counterfactual imagination produce memory distortions across ages?'.
  • Nilda Karoğlu (2nd supervisor), Title ‘Theory of Mind, sexual offending against children and cognitive distortions: An analysis of quantity and content in Theory of Mind’. 
  • Vasileios Kotsaris (2nd supervisor), Title TBC.
  • Marcus Sorensen (2nd supervisor), Title TBC.

Completed PhD supervision

  • Jumana Ahmad (1st supervisor; 2014), 'An electrophysiological and computational exploration of the working memory deficit in developmental dyslexia'
  • Eiman Alismail (1st supervisor; 2014), 'The role of familiarity in action understanding and imitation: investigating mirror neurons in Saudi children with ASD'
  • David Atkins (2nd supervisor; 2014), 'Culture and empathy'
  • Mahsa Barzy (1st supervisor; 2020), 'The effects of social context and perspective on language processing: Evidence from Autism Spectrum Disorder'
  • Martina De Lillo (2021; 1st supervisor), 'Social cognition across the lifespan and its relation to executive functions'
  • Rachael Morris (2nd supervisor), ‘The effect of Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation on attention’. Funder: University of Kent 50th Anniversary Research Scholarship.
  • Serena Vanzan (2nd supervisor; 2015), 'The effects of Caloric Vestibular Stimulation on Persistent Vegetative and Minimally Conscious States'
  • Miriam Tresh (1st supervisor; 2016), 'Mental simulations of language in individuals with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)'
  • Laura Smith (2nd supervisor; 2016), 'Neuro-stimulation in traumatic brain injury'


Current Roles

  • Honorary Secretary for the Experimental Psychology Society
  • Associate editor for Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition
  • Guest editing a Special Issue "Understanding Others in Moments of Crisis" for Social Psychology
  • External examiner for BSc Psychology, University of Southampton
  • Editorial board member for Cognition
  • Mentor in the Eastern Arc Mentoring Scheme
  • Peer-reviewer for numerous grant funders (e.g. ERC, Leverhulme Trust, ESRC, MRC) and journals (e.g. Science, Nature Human Behaviour, Cognition), and a PhD examiner.

Recent Grants and Awards

2022-24Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant (PI)
‘The cognitive basis of perspective-taking and prosocial behaviour in adolescents’
2022-24Templeton Religious Trust, Art Seeking Understanding Request for Proposals call (CoI)
‘Art Opening Minds: Imagination and Perspective in Film’
2018-21Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant (CoI)
‘Learning from fiction: a philosophical and psychological study’
2015-21European Research Council Starting Grant (PI)
‘Tracking the cognitive basis of social communication across the life-span’
2015-19Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant (PI)
‘Imagining the self in fictional worlds: Evidence from Autism Spectrum Disorder’
2012-15Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant (PI)
‘Understanding the minds of others: A cognitive approach to Theory of Mind’

Professional experience and recognition

2019Awarded Psychonomic Society Early Career Award
2018Awarded Open Science Framework (OSF) Pre-registration Challenge award
2018Conference poster awarded Postdoctoral Fellow Award from Cognitive Neuroscience Society
2016Awarded University of Kent Prize for Research
2015-17Action Editor for Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
2015-presentFellow of the Psychonomic Society
2013-17Member of Experimental Psychology Society steering committee
2014Fellow of the Higher Education Academy
2012Awarded Kent Union Teaching Award for ‘Best Teacher’ (nominations by students)
2012Awarded University of Kent Faculty of Social Sciences Teaching Award
2011Shortlisted for a Tobii EyeTrack Award
2007Awarded Jason Albrecht Outstanding Young Scientist Award from Society for Text and Discourse

Editorial and review work

  • Peer reviews for Journals, including: Cognition, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Language and Cognitive Processes, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Journal of Memory & Language, Psychological Science, Journal of Cognitive Psychology, Linguistics, Journal of Research on Reading, Social Neuroscience, PLoS ONE, Experimental Psychology, Journal of Pragmatics, Developmental Psychology, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Topics in Cognitive Science.Editorial and review work
  • Peer reviews for Grants: Medical Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council, British Academy, National Science Foundation, Israel Science Foundation, Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.
  • Peer reviews for conferences: CUNY conference on sentence processing, Architectures and Mechanisms for Language Processing, Text and Discourse, Semantics and Pragmatics of Dialogue, Experimental Pragmatics. 
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