Portrait of Professor Heather Ferguson

Professor Heather Ferguson

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

About

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. 

Heather is currently holding several research grants to support her research, 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 communication be enhanced by training these cognitive skills? How does advancing age affect this relationship? 
  • How do we separate reality from fantasy (say, in a fictional novel), and why do they get muddled up sometimes? Are there any social or cognitive benefits of reading fiction?

Key publications

  • Barzy, M., Black, J., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H.J. (2020). Autistic adults anticipate and integrate meaning based on the speaker’s voice: Evidence from eye-tracking and event-related potentials. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149, 1097-1115.
  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., & Ferguson, H.J. (2019). Sensorimotor mu rhythm during action observation changes across the lifespan independently from social cognitive processes. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 38, 100659.
  • Ferguson, H.J., Black, J., & Williams, D. (2019). Distinguishing reality from fantasy in adults with autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from eye movements and reading. Journal of Memory and Language, 106, 95-107.
  • Ferguson, H.J., Brunsdon, V., & Bradford, E. (2018). Age of avatar modulates the altercentric bias in a visual perspective-taking task: ERP and behavioural evidence. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 18, 1298-1319.

Teaching

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

Supervision

Current PhD supervision

  • Martina De Lillo (1st supervisor), Title TBA. Funder: European Research Council. 
  • Kamyla Marques (3rd supervisor), Title TBA.  Funder: Department Studentship (impact)   
  • 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’. 

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'
  • Rachael Morris (2nd supervisor), Title ‘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'

Professional

Current professional roles include:

Recent Grants and Awards

2018-21Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant
‘Learning from fiction: a philosophical and psychological study’ (CoI, with Prof Greg Currie PI, University of York, and Dr Stacie Friend CoI, Birkbeck University)
£342,223
2016-17University of Kent Faculty of Social Sciences Research Grant
‘Understanding Ourselves, Monitoring Others: distinguishing between ‘Self’ and ‘Other’ in Theory of Mind processes in healthy adults and adults with autistic spectrum disorders’ (PI, with Dr Lizzie Bradford CoPI)
£3,295
2015-16British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant
'The impact of alcohol, alcohol environments and alcohol rumination on social perspective-taking ability’ (CoI, Dr James Cane PI, London Southbank University)
£9,538
2015-20European Research Council Starting Grant
'Tracking the cognitive basis of social communication across the life-span (CogSoCoAGE)' (Principal Investigator)
€1,488,028
2015-19Leverhulme Trust
'Imagining the self in fictional worlds: evidence from Autism Spectrum Disorder' (Principal Investigator, with Dr David Williams CoI)
£225,48

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
2015-2017Action Editor for Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
2015-presentFellow of the Psychonomic Society
2013-2017Member 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.
  • 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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