Portrait of Professor Heather Ferguson

Professor Heather Ferguson

Professor of Psychology
REF Co-ordinator
Programme Director for the Msc in Cognitive Psychology/Neuropsychology
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

  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., Ferguson, H.J. (in press). Sensorimotor mu rhythm during action observation changes across the lifespan independently from social cognitive processes. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.
  • 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.
  • Ferguson, H.J., Apperly, I., Ahmad, J., Bindemann, M., & Cane, J.E. (2015). Task constraints distinguish perspective inferences from perspective use during discourse interpretation in a false belief task. Cognition, 139, 50-70. 

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. 
  • Mahsa Barzy (1st supervisor), Title TBA. Funder: Leverhulme Trust.  
  • 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' 
  • 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.

Publications

Showing 50 of 138 total publications in the Kent Academic Repository. View all publications.

Article

  • Bradford, E., Brunsdon, V., & Ferguson, H. (2020). The neural basis of belief-attribution across the lifespan: False-belief reasoning and the N400 effect. Cortex, 126, 265-280. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2020.01.016
    The current study examined how social cognition – specifically, belief-state processing – changes across the lifespan, using a large sample (N = 309) of participants aged 10-86 years. Participants completed an event-related brain potential study in which they listened to stories involving a character who held either a true- or false-belief about the location of an object, and then acted in a manner consistent or inconsistent to this belief-state. Analysis of the N400 revealed that when the character held a true-belief, inconsistent outcomes led to a more negative-going N400 waveform than consistent outcomes. In contrast, when the character held a false-belief, consistent outcomes led to a more negative-going N400 waveform than inconsistent outcomes, indicating that participants interpreted the character’s actions according to their own more complete knowledge of reality. Importantly, this egocentric bias was not modulated by age in an early time window (200-400ms post-stimulus onset), meaning that initial processing is grounded in reality, irrespective of age. However, this egocentric effect was correlated with age in a later time window (400-600ms post-stimulus onset), as older adults continued to consider the story events according to their own knowledge of reality, but younger participants had now switched to accommodate the character’s perspective. In a final 600-1000ms time window, this age modulation was no longer present. Interestingly, results suggested that this extended egocentric processing in older adults was not the result of domain-general cognitive declines, as no significant relationship was found with executive functioning (inhibitory control and working memory).
  • Symeonidou, I., Dumontheil, I., Ferguson, H., & Breheny, R. (2020). Adolescents are delayed at inferring complex social intentions in others, but not basic (false) beliefs: An eye movement investigation. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. doi:10.1177/1747021820920213
    Most developmental research on Theory of Mind (ToM) - our ability to infer the beliefs, intentions, and desires of others - has focused on the preschool years. This is unsurprising since it was previously thought that ToM skills are developed between the ages of 2 and 7 years old (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001). Over the last couple of decades however, studies have provided evidence for significant structural and functional changes in the brain areas involved in ToM (the “social brain”) not only during childhood, but also during adolescence. Importantly, some of these findings suggest that the use of ToM shows a prolonged development through middle childhood and adolescence. Although evidence from previous studies suggests a protracted development of ToM, the factors that constrain performance during middle childhood and adolescence are only just beginning to be explored. In the current paper we report two visual world eye-tracking studies that focus on the timecourse of predictive inferences. We establish that when the complexity of ToM inferences are at a level which is comparable to standard change-of-location False-belief tasks, then adolescents and adults generate predictions for other agents’ behaviour in the same timecourse. However, when inferences are socially more complex, requiring inferences about higher-order mental states, adolescents generate predictive gaze bias at a marked delay relative to adults. Importantly, our results demonstrate that these developmental differences go beyond differences in executive functions (inhibitory control or working memory), and point to distinct expectations between groups and greater uncertainty when predicting actions based on conflicting desires.
  • Barzy, M., Filik, R., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2020). Emotional processing of ironic vs. literal criticism in autistic and non-autistic adults: Evidence from eye-tracking. Autism Research. doi:10.1002/aur.2272
    Typically developing (TD) adults are able to keep track of story characters’ emotional states online while reading. Filik et al. (2017) showed that initially, participants expected the victim to be more hurt by ironic comments than literal, but later considered them less hurtful; ironic comments were regarded as more amusing. We examined these processes in autistic adults, since previous research has demonstrated socio-emotional difficulties among autistic people, which may lead to problems processing irony and its related emotional processes despite an intact ability to integrate language in context. We recorded eye movements from autistic and non-autistic adults while they read narratives in which a character (the victim) was either criticised in an ironic or a literal manner by another character (the protagonist). A target sentence then either described the victim as feeling hurt/amused by the comment, or the protagonist as having intended to hurt/amused the victim by making the comment. Results from the non-autistic adults broadly replicated the key findings from Filik et al. (2017), supporting the two-stage account. Importantly, the autistic adults did not show comparable two-stage processing of ironic language; they did not differentiate between the emotional responses for victims or protagonists following ironic vs. literal criticism. These findings suggest that autistic people experience a specific difficulty taking into account other peoples’ communicative intentions (i.e. infer their mental state) to appropriately anticipate emotional responses to an ironic comment. We discuss how these difficulties might link to atypical socio-emotional processing in autism, and the ability to maintain successful real-life social interactions.
  • Nieuwland, M., Barr, D., Bartolozzi, F., Busch-Moreno, S., Donaldson, D., Ferguson, H., Fu, X., Heyselaar, E., Huettig, F., Husband, M., Ito, A., kazanina, N., Kogan, V., Kohut, Z., Kulakova, E., Meziere, D., Politzer-Ahles, S., Rousselet, G., Rueschmeyer, S., Segaert, K., Tuomainen, J., & Von Grebmer Zu Wolfsthurn, S. (2020). Dissociable effects of prediction and integration during language comprehension: Evidence from a large-scale study using brain potentials. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 375. doi:10.1101/267815
    Composing sentence meaning is easier for predictable words than for unpredictable words. Are predictable words genuinely predicted, or simply more plausible and therefore easier to integrate with sentence context? We addressed this persistent and fundamental question using data from a recent, large-scale (N = 334) replication study, by investigating the effects of word predictability and sentence plausibility on the N400, the brain's electrophysiological index of semantic processing. A spatiotemporally fine-grained mixed-effects multiple regression analysis revealed overlapping effects of predictability and plausibility on the N400, albeit with distinct spatiotemporal profiles. Our results challenge the view that the predictability-dependent N400 reflects the effects of either prediction or integration, and suggest that semantic facilitation of predictable words arises from a cascade of processes that activate and integrate word meaning with context into a sentence-level meaning.
  • Barzy, M., Black, J., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2019). 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. doi:10.1037/xge0000705
    Typically developing (TD) individuals rapidly integrate information about a speaker and their intended meaning while processing sentences online. We examined whether the same processes are activated in autistic adults, and tested their timecourse in two pre-registered experiments. Experiment 1 employed the visual world paradigm. Participants listened to sentences where the speaker’s voice and message were either consistent or inconsistent (e.g. “When we go shopping, I usually look for my favourite wine”, spoken by an adult or a child), and concurrently viewed visual scenes including consistent and inconsistent objects (e.g. wine and sweets). All participants were slower to select the mentioned object in the inconsistent condition. Importantly, eye movements showed a visual bias towards the voiceconsistent object, well before hearing the disambiguating word, showing that autistic adults rapidly use the speaker’s voice to anticipate the intended meaning. However, this target bias emerged earlier in the TD group compared to the autism group (2240ms vs 1800ms before disambiguation). Experiment 2 recorded ERPs to explore speaker-meaning integration processes. Participants listened to sentences as described above, and ERPs were time-locked to the onset of the target word. A control condition included a semantic anomaly. Results revealed an enhanced N400 for inconsistent speaker-meaning sentences that was comparable to that elicited by anomalous sentences, in both groups. Overall, contrary to research that has characterised autism in terms of a local processing bias and pragmatic dysfunction, autistic people were unimpaired at integrating multiple modalities of linguistic information, and were comparably sensitive to speaker-meaning inconsistency effects.
  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., Smith, L., & Ferguson, H. (2019). Short-term physical training enhances mirror system activation to action observation. Social Neuroscience. doi:10.1080/17470919.2019.1660708
    The mirroring of actions is performed by a specialized system of neurons found in the sensorimotor cortex, termed the mirror neuron system. This system is considered an important mechanism that facilitates social understanding. We present a pre-registered experiment that used EEG to investigate whether short-term training via physical rehearsal or observational learning elicit distinct changes in mirror neuron activity for unfamiliar hand actions, and whether these training effects are influenced by degree of familiarity (i.e. the frequency of action repetitions during training). Sixty adults completed a pre- and post-training EEG action observation task. Half of the participants completed 30 minutes of execution training (i.e. observing and performing unfamiliar hand actions), and half completed observation-only training (i.e. observing unfamiliar hand actions being performed). Post-training familiarity was manipulated by varying the number of training repetitions for each hand action (from 0 to 50 repetitions). Results revealed that sensorimotor cortex activity to the observation of hand actions increased following execution training, but did not change when training was simply observational. Moreover, frequency of training repetitions did not modulate sensorimotor cortex activation after training, suggesting that short-term physical rehearsal enhances general processes involved in action understanding, rather than specific motor representations.
  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., & Ferguson, H. (2019). Sensorimotor mu rhythm during action observation changes across the lifespan independently from social cognitive processes. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 38. doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2019.100659
    The observation of actions performed by another person activates parts of the brain as if the observer were performing that action, referred to as the ‘mirror system’. Very little is currently known about the developmental trajectory of the mirror system and related social cognitive processes. This experimental study sought to explore the modulation of the sensorimotor mu rhythm during action observation using EEG measures, and how these may relate to social cognitive abilities across the lifespan, from late childhood through to old age. Three-hundred and one participants aged 10- to 86-years-old completed an action observation EEG task and three additional explicit measures of social cognition. As predicted, findings show enhanced sensorimotor alpha and beta desynchronization during hand action observation as compared to static hand observation. Overall, our findings indicate that the reactivity of the sensorimotor mu rhythm to the observation of others’ actions increases throughout the lifespan, independently from social cognitive processes.
  • Ferguson, H., 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. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2019.03.001
    Understanding fictional events requires one to distinguish reality from fantasy, and thus engages high-level processes including executive functions and imagination, both of which are impaired in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We examined how adults with and without ASD make sense of reality-violating fantasy narratives by testing real-time understanding of counterfactuals. Participants were eye-tracked as they read narratives that depicted novel counterfactual scenarios that violate reality (e.g. “If margarine contained detergent, Mum could use margarine in her washing/baking”, Experiment 1), or counterfactual versions of known fictional worlds (e.g. “If Harry Potter had lost all his magic powers, he would use his broom to sweep/fly”, Experiment 2). Results revealed anomaly detection effects in the early moments of processing (immediately in Experiment 1, and from the post-critical region in Experiment 2), which were not modulated by group. We discuss these findings in relation to the constraints from real-world and fantasy contexts that compete to influence language comprehension, and identify a dissociation between ToM impairments and counterfactual processing abilities.
  • Black, J., Barzy, M., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2019). Intact counterfactual emotion processing in autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from eye-tracking. Autism Research, 12, 422-444. doi:10.1002/aur.2056
    Counterfactual emotions, such as regret and relief, require an awareness of how things could have been different. We report a pre-registered experiment that examines how adults with and without ASD process counterfactual emotions in real-time, based on research showing that the developmental trajectory of counterfactual thinking may be disrupted in people with ASD. Participants were eye-tracked as they read narratives in which a character made an explicit decision then subsequently experienced either a mildly negative or positive outcome. The final sentence in each story included an explicit remark about the character’s mood that was either consistent or inconsistent with the character’s expected feelings of regret or relief (e.g. “… she feels happy/annoyed about her decision.”). Results showed that adults with ASD are unimpaired in processing emotions based on counterfactual reasoning, and in fact showed earlier sensitivity to inconsistencies within relief contexts compared to TD participants. This finding highlights a previously unknown strength in empathy and emotion processing in adults with ASD, which may have been masked in previous research that has typically relied on explicit, response-based measures to record emotional inferences, which are likely to be susceptible to demand characteristics and response biases. This study therefore highlights the value of employing implicit measures that provide insights on peoples’ immediate responses to emotional content without disrupting ongoing processing.
  • Bradford, E., Hukker, V., Smith, L., & Ferguson, H. (2018). Belief-Attribution in Adults with and without Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Autism Research, 11, 1542-1553. doi:10.1002/aur.2032
    An important aspect of daily life is the ability to infer information about the contents of other people’s minds, such as what they can see and what they know, in order to engage in successful interactions. This is referred to as possession of a ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM). Past research has shown that adults with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often show deficits in social communication abilities, although can successfully pass tests of explicit ToM. The current study utilized a computerized false-belief task to explore subtle differences (i.e., measuring response times and accuracy rates) in how efficiently ToM capacities – specifically, belief-attribution – are utilized in adults with and without ASD. In the task, participants were asked to attribute a belief-state to either themselves or another person, following establishment of a true or false-belief scenario. Results revealed comparable patterns of ToM engagement across individuals with and without ASD, with faster and more accurate responses to ‘Self’ versus ‘Other’ oriented questions, and slower response times when shifting between the ‘Self’ and ‘Other’ perspective compared to when maintaining a perspective. However, autistic individuals showed a particular deficit in correctly identifying a belief-state in false-belief trials, in which two contrasting belief-states had to be held in mind, suggesting more difficulty disengaging from current, reality based belief-states than neuro-typical individuals.
  • Ferguson, H., Brunsdon, V., & Bradford, E. (2018). Age of avatar modulates the altercentric bias in a visual perspective-taking task: ERP and behavioural evidence. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 18, 1298-1319. doi:10.3758/s13415-018-0641-1
    Despite being able to rapidly and accurately infer their own and other peoples’ visual perspectives, healthy adults experience difficulty ignoring the irrelevant perspective when the two perspectives are in conflict; they experience egocentric and altercentric interference. We examine for the first time how the age of an observed person (adult versus child avatar) influences adults’ visual perspective-taking, particularly the degree to which they experience interference from their own or the other person’s perspective. Participants completed the avatar visual perspective-taking task, in which they verified the number of discs in a visual scene according to either their own or an on-screen avatar’s perspective (Experiments 1 and 2) or only from their own perspective (Experiment 3), where the two perspectives could be consistent or in conflict. Age of avatar was manipulated between (Experiment 1) or within (Experiments 2 and 3) participants, and interference was assessed using behavioural (Experiments 1-3) and ERP (Experiment 1) measures. Results revealed that altercentric interference is reduced or eliminated when a child avatar was present, suggesting that adults do not automatically compute a child avatar’s perspective. We attribute this pattern to either enhanced visual processing for own-age others or an inference on reduced mental awareness in younger children. The findings argue against a purely attentional basis for the altercentric effect, and instead support an account where both mentalising and directional processes modulate automatic visual perspective-taking, and perspective-taking effects are strongly influenced by experimental context.
  • Nieuwland, M., Politzer-Ahles, S., Heyselaar, E., Segaert, K., Von Grebmer Zu Wolfsthurn, S., Bartolozzi, F., Kogan, V., Ito, A., Meziere, D., Barr, D., Rousselet, G., Ferguson, H., Busch-Moreno, S., Fu, X., Tuomainen, J., Kulakova, E., Husband, M., Donaldson, D., Kohut, Z., Rueschmeyer, S., & Huettig, F. (2018). Large-scale replication study reveals a limit on probabilistic prediction in language comprehension. ELife, 7. doi:10.7554/eLife.33468
    Do people routinely pre-activate the meaning and even the phonological form of upcoming words? The most acclaimed evidence for phonological prediction comes from a 2005 Nature Neuroscience publication by DeLong, Urbach and Kutas, who observed a graded modulation of electrical brain potentials (N400) to nouns and preceding articles by the probability that people use a word to continue the sentence fragment (‘cloze’). In our direct replication study spanning 9 laboratories (N=334), pre-registered replication-analyses and exploratory Bayes factor analyses successfully replicated the noun-results but, crucially, not the article-results. Pre-registered single-trial analyses also yielded a statistically significant effect for the nouns but not the articles. Exploratory Bayesian single-trial analyses showed that the article-effect may be non-zero but is likely far smaller than originally reported and too small to observe without very large sample sizes. Our results do not support the view that readers routinely pre-activate the phonological form of predictable words.
  • Imagining counterfactual worlds in autism spectrum disorder. (2018). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 44, 1444-1463. doi:10.1037/xlm0000500
    Two experiments are presented which explore online counterfactual processing in autism
    spectrum disorder (ASD) using eye-tracking. Participants’ eye movements were tracked
    while they read factual and counterfactual sentences in an anomaly detection task. In
    Experiment 1, the sentences depicted everyday counterfactual situations (e.g. If Joanne had
    remembered her umbrella, her hair would have been dry/wet when she arrived home).
    Sentences in Experiment 2 depicted counterfactual versions of real world events (e.g. If the
    Titanic had not hit an iceberg, it would have survived/sunk along with all the passengers).
    Results from both experiments suggest that counterfactual understanding is undiminished in
    adults with ASD. In fact, participants with ASD were faster than TD participants to detect
    anomalies within realistic, discourse-based counterfactuals (Experiment 1). Detection was
    comparable for TD and ASD groups when understanding could be grounded in knowledge
    about reality (Experiment 2), though the two groups employed subtly different strategies for
    responding to and recovering from counterfactual inconsistent words. These data argue
    against general difficulties in global coherence and complex integration in ASD.
  • Ferguson, H., & Jayes, L. (2018). Plausibility and perspective influence the processing of counterfactual narratives. Discourse Processes, 55, 166-186. doi:10.1080/0163853X.2017.1330032
    Previous research has established that readers’ eye movements are sensitive to the difficulty with which a word is processed. One important factor that influences processing is the fit of a word within the wider context, including its plausibility. Here we explore the influence of plausibility in counterfactual language processing. Counterfactuals describe hypothetical versions of the world, but are grounded in the implication that the described events are not true. We report an eye-tracking study that examined the processing of counterfactual premises that varied the plausibility of a described action and manipulated the narrative perspective (“you” vs. “he/she”). Results revealed a comparable pattern to previous plausibility experiments. Readers were sensitive to the inconsistent thematic relation in anomalous and implausible conditions. The fact that these anomaly detection effects were evident within a counterfactual frame suggests that participants were evaluating incoming information within the counterfactual world, and did not suspend processing based on an inference about reality. Interestingly, perspective modulated the speed with which anomalous but not implausible words were detected.
  • Ferguson, H., & Cane, J. (2017). Tracking the impact of depression in a perspective-taking task. Scientific Reports, 7. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-13922-y
    Research has identified impairments in Theory of Mind (ToM) abilities in depressed patients, particularly in relation to tasks involving empathetic responses and belief reasoning. We aimed to build on this research by exploring the relationship between depressed mood and cognitive ToM, specifically visual perspective-taking ability. High and low depressed participants were eye-tracked as they completed a perspective-taking task, in which they followed the instructions of a ‘director’ to move target objects (e.g. a “teapot with spots on”) around a grid, in the presence of a temporarily ambiguous competitor object (e.g. a “teapot with stars on”). Importantly, some of the objects in the grid were occluded from the director’s (but not the participant’s) view. Results revealed no group based difference in participants’ ability to use perspective cues to identify the target object. All participants were faster to select the target object when the competitor was only available to the participant, compared to when the competitor was mutually available to the participant and director. Eye-tracking measures supported this pattern, revealing that perspective directed participants’ visual search immediately upon hearing the ambiguous object’s name (e.g. “teapot”). We discuss how these results fit with previous studies that have shown a negative relationship between depression and ToM.
  • Abbot-Smith, K., Chang, F., Rowland, C., Ferguson, H., & Pine, J. (2017). Do two and three year old children use an incremental first-NP-as-agent bias to process active transitive and passive sentences? : A permutation analysis. PloS One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0186129
    We used eye-tracking to investigate if and when children show an incremental bias to assume that the first noun phrase in a sentence is the agent (first-NP-as-agent bias) while processing the meaning of English active and passive transitive sentences. We also investi-gated whether children can override this bias to successfully distinguish active from passive sentences, after processing the remainder of the sentence frame. For this second question we used eye-tracking (Study 1) and forced-choice pointing (Study 2). For both studies, we used a paradigm in which participants simultaneously saw two novel actions with reversed agent-patient relations while listening to active and passive sentences. We compared English-speaking 25-month-olds and 41-month-olds in between-subjects sentence struc-ture conditions (Active Transitive Condition vs. Passive Condition). A permutation analysis found that both age groups showed a bias to incrementally map the first noun in a sentence onto an agent role. Regarding the second question, 25-month-olds showed some evidence of distinguishing the two structures in the eye-tracking study. However, the 25-month-olds did not distinguish active from passive sentences in the forced choice pointing task. In contrast, the 41-month-old children did reanalyse their initial first-NP-as-agent bias to the extent that they clearly distinguished between active and passive sentences both in the eye-tracking data and in the pointing task. The results are discussed in relation to the development of syntactic (re)parsing.
  • Ingram, J., & Ferguson, H. (2017). Complement set reference after implicitly small quantities: An event-related potentials study. Discourse Processes, 55, 146-156. doi:10.1080/0163853X.2017.1330034
    An anaphoric reference to the complement-set is a reference to the set which does not fulfil the predicate of the preceding sentence. Preferred reference to the complement-set has been found in eye movements when a character’s implicit desire for a high amount has been denied using a negative emotion. We recorded ERPs to examine if, when a character’s desire is denied with a negative emotion, the complement-set is immediately available for reference. Analysis of the N400 over posterior regions showed that while readers favoured the reference-set following a positive emotion, there was no difference in responses between complement-set and reference-set references following a negative emotion. Processing of a complement-set reference did lead to an overall increase in negativity of the N400, suggesting that interpreting a complement-set reference incurred a general processing cost. This study provides novel data on the range of circumstances under which the complement-set is available.
  • Eye-tracking reveals the cost of switching between self and other perspectives in a visual perspective-taking task. (2017). Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 70, 1647-1660. doi:10.1080/17470218.2016.1199716
    Previous studies have shown that while people can rapidly and accurately compute their own and other people’s visual perspectives, they experience difficulty ignoring the irrelevant perspective when the two perspectives differ. We used the ‘avatar’ perspective-taking task to examine the mechanisms that underlie these egocentric (i.e. interference from their own perspective) and altercentric (i.e. interference from the other person’s perspective) tendencies. Participants were eye-tracked as they verified the number of discs in a visual scene according to either their own or an on-screen avatar’s perspective. Crucially in some trials the two perspectives were inconsistent (i.e. each saw a different number of discs), while in others they were consistent. To examine the effect of perspective switching, performance was compared for trials that were preceded with the same versus different perspective cue. We found that altercentric interference can be reduced or eliminated when participants stick with their own perspective across consecutive trials. Our eye- tracking analyses revealed distinct fixation patterns for self and other perspective-taking, suggesting that consistency effects in this paradigm are driven by implicit mentalising of what others can see, and not automatic directional cues from the avatar.
  • Cane, J., Ferguson, H., & Apperly, I. (2017). Using perspective to resolve reference: the impact of cognitive load and motivation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43, 591-610. doi:10.1037/xlm0000345
    Research has demonstrated a link between perspective-taking and working memory. Here we used eye-tracking to examine the time course with which working memory load (WML) influences perspective-taking ability in a referential communication task, and how motivation to take another’s perspective modulates these effects.  In Experiment 1, where there was no reward or time-pressure, listeners only showed evidence of incorporating perspective knowledge during integration of the target object, but did not anticipate reference to this Common Ground object during the pre-target noun period. WML did not affect this perspective use. In Experiment 2 - where a reward for speed and accuracy was applied - listeners used perspective cues to disambiguate the target object from the competitor object from the earliest moments of processing (i.e. during the pre-target noun period)- but only under low load. Under high load, responses were comparable with the control condition, where both objects were in common ground. Furthermore, attempts to initiate perspective-relevant responses under high load led to impaired recall on the concurrent WML task, indicating that perspective-relevant responses were drawing on limited cognitive resources. These results show that when there is ambiguity, perspective cues guide rapid referential interpretation when there is sufficient motivation and sufficient cognitive resources.
  • Abbot-Smith, K., Nurmsoo, E., Croll, R., Ferguson, H., & Forrester, M. (2016). How 2;6-year-olds tailor verbal expressions to interlocutor informational needs. Journal of Child Language, 43, 1277-1291. doi:10.1017/S0305000915000616
    Although preschoolers are pervasively under-informative in their actual usage of verbal reference, a number of studies have shown that they nonetheless demonstrate sensitivity to listener informational needs, at least when environmental cues to this are obvious. We investigated two issues. The first concerned the types of visual cues to interlocutor informational needs which 2;6-year-olds can process whilst producing complex referring expressions. The second was whether performance in experimental tasks related to naturalistic conversational proficiency. We found 2;6-year-olds used fewer complex expressions when the objects were dissimilar compared to highly similar objects, indicating that they tailor their verbal expressions to the informational needs of another person, even when the cue to the informational need is relatively opaque. We also found a correlation between conversational skills as rated by the parents and the degree to which 2;6-year-olds could learn from feedback to produce complex referring expressions.

Book section

  • Ferguson, H. (2019). Counterfactuals. In C. Cummins & N. Katsos (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Experimental Semantics and Pragmatics. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-oxford-handbook-of-experimental-semantics-and-pragmatics-9780198791768?cc=gb&lang=en&#
    The ability to update our knowledge using contextual information is a vital process during everyday language comprehension. Counterfactual language (e.g. If…then…) establishes a special kind of context which requires a person to represent false information as temporarily true (and vice versa). While a long tradition of research has explored counterfactual reasoning strategies, and the kinds of counterfactual thoughts people are likely to generate in a variety of circumstances, it is only very recently that researchers have begun to empirically test how counterfactuals are represented and accessed online during language comprehension. This emerging research has employed temporally-sensitive cognitive neuroscientific methodologies alongside language comprehension tasks to demonstrate that healthy adult readers can make appropriate inferences following a counterfactual context, showing rapid, and possibly simultaneous, access to both the counterfactual and factual interpretations of events. Future research is needed to explore the link between counterfactual thinking and social cognition, including how counterfactual thinking is affected when social skills are impaired (as in autism spectrum disorders).

Conference or workshop item

  • Bradford, E., Brunsdon, V., & Ferguson, H. (2018). The Neural Basis of False-Belief Processing Across the Lifespan: An ERP Study. In Society for Psychophysiological Research (SPR) Conference. Quebec City, Canada.
    Theory of Mind, or social cognition, refers to the ability to understand, compute, and attribute mental states to oneself and other people. Prior research has shown that even in healthy ageing, declines in social cognitive abilities are often seen. In this study, typically developed participants aged 10-80 years completed an event related potential (ERP) study examining changes in the neural basis of social-cognition across the lifespan. Participants listened to a series of short stories in which a character was described as being in possession of a true- or false- belief about an object’s location, before acting in a manner consistent or inconsistent with this belief-state. Results revealed that consistency influenced processing differently for true and false-belief states. Specifically, when the character held a true belief, the N400 waveform was more negative going for belief-inconsistent actions, compared to belief-consistent actions, from 250ms after critical word onset. However, this pattern was reversed when the character held a false belief, as consistent actions led to a more negative-going N400 component than consistent actions. Age did not modulate these effects. These results indicate that listeners initially interpret narratives from an egocentric perspective, and that this bias is present across the lifespan. Behavioural measures confirmed that this egocentrism is later overcome, with participants ultimately able to accurately rate how appropriately a character acted based on their belief-state.
  • Bradford, E., Brunsdon, V., & Ferguson, H. (2018). Factors predicting Theory of Mind success across the lifespan. In Social and Affective Neuroscience (SANS) Conference. Brooklyn, NY.
    Engaging in social communication requires the ability to understand the mental states of other people, such as what they may know, believe, or see, and to consider how these mental states may differ from our own. In this study, a computerised false-belief task (the Self/Other Differentiation task) was utilized to assess the ease with which typically developed adults (aged 18-78 years) could attribute beliefs to both the ‘Self’ and ‘Other’. Participants were presented with images of three containers and asked to identify where they or someone else would look for a particular object (e.g., ‘[You/John] are looking for some sugar, where would you look?]. The contents of the container was then revealed to be either congruent (e.g., sugar in the sugar bowl) or incongruent (e.g., marbles in the sugar bowl). Finally, participants were asked the critical probe question: ‘What did [You/John] think was inside the container, before seeing inside?’). Results revealed a significant effect of perspective, with longer and more error prone responses to questions referring to another person’s perspective compared to the ‘self’ perspective; this effect was larger in older adults, suggesting that differentiating between one’s own and another person’s perspective becomes more difficult with age, requiring more cognitive effort. Participants also completed tasks assessing executive functioning abilities, including inhibition, working memory, planning, and cognitive flexibility. Results indicated a key role of inhibition and working memory abilities in predicting performance on the Self/Other Differentiation task, but only in older rather than younger adults.
  • Bradford, E., Brunsdon, V., & Ferguson, H. (2018). An ERP Study Examining False-Belief Understanding in Adolescents. In Cognitive Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting 2018. Boston, MA, USA.
    To allow successful communication to occur, we need to compute and attribute mental states to other people, allowing understanding of what they may believe, think, or know. These abilities are often referred to as possession of a Theory of Mind (ToM), and a core part of ToM is understanding of belief-states. This study explored belief-reasoning abilities across adolescence, with participants aged 10-21 years old. Electroencephalograpy (EEG) measures were recorded whilst participants listened to a series of short stories regarding a character who is in possession of a true or false belief about an object’s location. The character is described as acting in a manner that is either consistent or inconsistent with this true/false-belief state, such as looking for an object in a location that matches where they believe the object to be, or which contradicts their belief about the objects location. Analysis revealed that when the character was in possession of a false-belief, the N400 waveform was more negative going for belief-consistent actions, compared to belief-inconsistent actions, from 250ms after critical word onset. In contrast, when the character was in possession of a true-belief, inconsistent actions triggered a more negative-going deflection than consistent actions. These results suggest that, across adolescence, participants were biased towards an initial egocentric interpretation of the stories, although behavioural measures demonstrated that this egocentrism could be overcome, with participants accurately able to rate the characters’ actions as appropriate/inappropriate when they acted in a manner consistent or inconsistent with their belief state.
  • Bradford, E., Hukker, V., Smith, L., & Ferguson, H. (2018). Assessing belief-attribution in adults with and without Autism Spectrum Disorders using a computerised false-belief task. In Experimental Psychology Society January Meeting, 2018. London, UK.
    Throughout our day-to-day lives, we need to infer information about the contents of other people’s minds, such as what they can see and what they know, in order to engage in successful interactions. This is referred to as possession of a ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM). Past research has shown that adults with Autistic Spectrum Disorders often show a deficit in general social communication abilities, although can successfully pass some tests of ToM. The current study used a computerized false-belief task to explore subtle differences in belief-attribution capacities, a core part of ToM, in adults with and without autism. In the task, participants were asked to attribute a belief-state to either themselves or another person, following establishment of a true or false-belief scenario (i.e., contents of a container revealed to be either expected, such as sugar in a sugar jar, or unexpected, such as marbles in a sugar jar). Results revealed comparable speed of processing between groups, however autistic individuals showed a particular deficit in correctly identifying a belief-state in false-belief trials, in which two contrasting belief-states had to be held in mind (i.e., outdated belief vs. reality state), suggesting more difficulty disengaging from current, reality based belief-states than neuro-typical individuals.
  • Bradford, E., Brunsdon, V., & Ferguson, H. (2017). The Adolescent Mind: Factors influencing Theory of Mind abilities during adolescence. In Psychonomic Society 58th Annual Meeting 2017. Vancouver, Canada.
    Throughout our daily lives, we are required to infer information about other people’s mental states, an ability referred to as possession of a ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM). Prior research has demonstrated ongoing cognitive development throughout adolescence. This study explored the extent to which ToM continues to develop during adolescence, and which factors may influence successful ToM expression during this period. Participants aged 10-21 years completed a number of tasks, including assessments of ToM (e.g., emotion recognition, intention reasoning), general cognitive traits (including autistic traits, empathy, positive/negative affect) and the influence of technology usage. Results revealed a significant effect of age on ToM engagement, with a decrease in egocentric processing across adolescence, related to a number of factors including association with autistic traits and time spent engaging with technology. However, these relationships varied between younger and older adolescents, suggesting changes in factors influencing successful ToM expression across this period of development.
  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., De Lillo, M., & Ferguson, H. (2017). Changes in executive function across adulthood. In International Conference for Cognitive Neuroscience of Executive Functions. Padova, Italy.
    Executive functions play an important role in our everyday life, allowing us to consider other people’s perspectives, focus attention on specific tasks, and to engage in successful problem solving. Prior research has found that general executive functions may vary at different ages, with older age often characterised by a decline in executive functioning. The current study sought to explore whether these age-related declines reflect overall executive functioning deficits, or whether specific deficits in separable components of executive function can be seen at different ages. Participants aged 18-86 years-old completed a battery of executive function tasks assessing the specific roles of working memory (operation span), planning (Tower of Hanoi), cognitive flexibility (task-switching) and inhibitory control (Stroop). As expected, results revealed that inhibitory control declined throughout adulthood. Interestingly, working memory was found to be maintained across adulthood, until around the age of 60 years-old when a decline in working memory begins to emerge. Cognitive flexibility and planning abilities were found to be stable across adulthood, with no apparent declines in older age. Results suggest that the influence of age on executive function abilities is not an all-or-nothing capacity, with distinct performance across separable measures of executive function abilities. Older age is characterised by a decline in inhibitory control and working memory, but other components of executive function are maintained across the lifespan.
  • Bradford, E., Brunsdon, V., & Ferguson, H. (2017). Using Eye-Tracking to Study how Belief-Reasoning Processes Change Across the Lifespan. In 19th European Conference on Eye-Movements. Wuppertal, Germany.
    This study explored how efficiently younger (18-30 years) and older (65-80 years) adults compute belief-states of the ‘Self’ and ‘Other’. Using a computerised false-belief task, participants were shown a container with expected (e.g., sugar in a sugar jar) or unexpected (e.g., marbles in a sugar jar) contents inside. Following contents revelation, participants heard an audio question asking them to consider what either they themselves (‘Self’) or another person (‘Other’) had believed to be within the container, before seeing inside. Three images then appeared on screen: the correct answer (‘sugar’), a distracter (‘marbles’), and a novel filler item. Eye-tracking analysis revealed that, compared to younger adults, older adults took longer to disengage from the ‘distracter’ object (i.e., the object they know to actually be held in the container), in order to focus on the correct belief-state object, suggesting egocentric processing of the scenario. Behavioural results reflected this: older adults were slower and less accurate than younger adults when attributing beliefs to other people. Results suggest that different strategies are utilized across the lifespan when considering the perspectives of the ‘Self’ versus ‘Other’, and indicate that reductions in the ability to inhibit the knowledgeable egocentric viewpoint may influence social communication skills.
  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., & Ferguson, H. (2017). Eye movements during perspective-taking in younger and older adults. In European Conference on Eye Movements. Wuppertal, Germany.
    Healthy adults can rapidly compute their own and another’s perspective, yet they have difficulties when another person’s point of view conflicts with their own. This study investigated how perspective-taking abilities change across the lifespan using eye-tracking to examine the cognitive mechanisms that underlie visual perspective-taking. Younger (18-30 years-old) and older (65-80 years-old) adults completed a version of Samson et al.’s (2010) visual perspective-taking task. Participants’ behavioural responses were complemented by eye movement analysis. The behavioural responses of the younger adults indicated that they are influenced by what they can see when judging another’s perspective (egocentric intrusions) and influenced by what someone else can see when judging their own perspective (altercentric intrusions), replicating previous findings. However, older adults had specific impairments when there was a conflict between their own and another’s perspective. This pattern was also examined in gaze behaviour and pupillometry analysis. We examined the location of participants’ eye movements around the visual scene. There were distinct fixation patterns for self and other perspective-taking that did not differ between the younger and older age groups. Eye movement analyses indicated that both younger and older adults were using similar processing strategies during visual perspective-taking.
  • Bradford, E., Brunsdon, V., & Ferguson, H. (2017). The Relationship Between Theory of Mind and Executive Functions in Older and Younger Adults. In 18th General Meeting of the European Association of Social Psychology. Granada, Spain.
    This research explores the relationship between Theory of Mind abilities (e.g., perspective taking, emotion recognition) and executive functions (e.g., inhibition, working memory) in younger (18-30 years) and older adults (60+ years), exploring potential changes in abilities across the lifespan.
  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., & Ferguson, H. (2017). Mirror neuron activity in younger and older adults. In Experimental Psychology Society meeting. Reading, UK.
    The human mirror neuron system (hMNS) may have an important role in social cognition, such as for understanding other's actions and intentions. In addition, difficulties in social cognition have been reported in healthy ageing. We therefore investigated the functioning of the hMNS in healthy ageing using mu suppression as an EEG marker of the hMNS. Younger and older adults completed a hand movement observation task. Initially, participants performed a 2-minute resting-state EEG as a reference period. Subsequently, participants watched different video clips (3s in duration) depicting either a static hand or various hand actions, such as locking a door or clicking fingers. For younger adults, we replicated previous findings of greater mu suppression during hand movement observation compared to static hand observation. Interestingly, we found that mu suppression during hand movement observation was significantly greater for older adults compared to younger adults. Additional analyses examined how mu suppression, and hence hMNS activity, is influenced by peoples’ day-to-day social experiences. The results suggest that the hMNS continues to specialise for social cognition with advancing age.
  • Bradford, E., Brunsdon, V., & Ferguson, H. (2017). An EEG study examining how ageing influences false-belief reasoning abilities. In British Neuroscience Association (BNA). Birmingham, UK.
    The ability to understand other people’s mental states – beliefs, desires, knowledge – plays a key role in everyday life, allowing individuals to engage in successful interactions and to communicate successfully. It has previously been shown that social-cognitive abilities such as these can decline with age, even in healthy individuals. The research presented here assessed potential differences in the neural basis of social-cognition abilities across the lifespan, exploring whether differentiations in belief-processing continue across the lifespan, or whether differentiations are reduced as social-cognitive abilities decline with healthy ageing. EEG measures were taken whilst participants (aged 18 – 80+ years) listened to a series of short stories in which a character held a true or false belief about the location of an object. The character was then described as acting in a manner consistent or inconsistent with this belief-state (i.e. the location they looked in for an object). Analysis using event-related potentials demonstrated that for both younger and older adults, there was a significant difference in how true and false-belief states were processed, with a significant role of belief-consistent versus belief-inconsistent actions of the character. When the character was in possession of a false-belief, belief-consistent outcomes led to a more negative-going N400 component than belief-inconsistent outcomes. Whilst following similar patterns, these distinctions were more pronounced in the older adult group than the younger adult group. Results indicate potential differences in the processes underlying belief-state reasoning across the lifespan.
  • Bradford, E., Brunsdon, V., & Ferguson, H. (2017). The effects of ageing on false-belief reasoning abilities: an EEG study with older and younger adults. In Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) Conference. San Francisco, California, USA.
    A critical part of our day-to-day lives is our ability to understand the mental states (beliefs, desires, knowledge) of the people we interact with, often referred to as possession of a ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM). One of the litmus tests of ToM is understanding of false-beliefs –awareness that another individual is in possession of an incorrect belief, and would be expected to act in a manner consistent with this. Prior research with young adults has shown key differences in how true-belief versus false-belief stories are processed; however, it is not currently clear whether this differentiation continues across the lifespan. This study explored how true and false-belief situations are processed by younger (18-35 years) and older (65+ years) adults. Electroencephalography (EEG) measures were taken whilst participants listened to short stories in which a character is described as having a true or false-belief about an object’s location, before acting in a manner consistent or inconsistent with their belief-state (i.e. where they look for an object). Analysis revealed that when the character held a true-belief about an object’s location, the N400 waveform was more negative-going for belief-inconsistent versus belief-consistent actions, in both younger and older adults. However, when the character held a false-belief about an object’s location, older adults showed the opposite pattern, with more negative-going waveforms for belief-consistent than belief-inconsistent actions, which was not the case for the younger adults. Results suggest potential differences in the processes underlying belief-reasoning across the lifespan.
  • Bradford, E., Brunsdon, V., & Ferguson, H. (2017). The Relationship between Theory of Mind and Executive Functioning Across the Lifespan. In Social and Affective Neuroscience Society (SANS) Conference. Los Angeles, California, USA.
    To successfully interact with other people, it is important to be able to infer information about their mental states – what they may know, believe, or think at any given time. This ability is often referred to as possession of a ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM). Prior research has demonstrated a strong relationship between ToM abilities and Executive Functioning (EF), particularly in young children. However, less is known about the relationship between ToM and EF in adulthood, although it has been shown that during healthy ageing, a decline in both social cognition and EF abilities is often reported. The research presented here sought to explore how the relationship between ToM and EF may change across the lifespan, and how different EF components may be particularly important for successful engagement of ToM at different ages. Participants aged 18-80 years-old completed a battery of ToM tasks assessing different aspects of ToM (such as perspective-taking and emotion recognition) and EF abilities (including inhibition, cognitive flexibility, working memory, and planning). Results revealed differences in how younger and older participants utilize their ToM abilities; older adults were significantly slower in their response times in ToM tasks compared to younger adults. Additionally, older adults made significantly more errors in their responses than younger adults, suggesting difficulty in spontaneously and efficiently computing the mental states of other people. Results highlighted a key role of inhibition and working memory in predicting successful engagement in higher-level ToM, suggesting a critical relationship between ToM and EF continues across the lifespan.
  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., & Ferguson, H. (2017). An EEG study to investigate the human mirror neuron system and its relationship to social abilities in healthy ageing. In British Neuroscience Association (BNA). Birmingham, UK.
    The human mirror neuron system may play an important role in social abilities, such as our ability to empathise and understand other people. The functioning of the human neuron system in healthy ageing and its relationship to social abilities has not been previously investigated. We therefore examined age-related differences in sensorimotor mu desynchronisation as an EEG marker of the human mirror neuron system across the pre-motor cortex, motor cortex and supplementary motor area during action observation. Participants aged 18 to 86-years-old completed a hand movement observation task during EEG recording. Firstly, participants completed a 2-minute resting-state EEG as a reference period and, secondly, watched different video clips that depicted either a static hand or various hand actions, such as locking a door or clicking fingers. Participants also completed the Autism Quotient and Empathy Quotient as self-report measures of social abilities. For younger adults, we replicated previous findings of greater alpha and low beta desynchronisation during hand movement observation compared to static hand observation. We also found greater sensorimotor mu desynchronisation with increasing age. In addition, we examined how sensorimotor mu desynchronisation was related to general social abilities, including autistic traits and empathy ability. Therefore, this study reports the functioning of the human mirror neuron system across adulthood and how it may be related to social abilities.
  • Bradford, E., Brunsdon, V., & Ferguson, H. (2017). The Neural Basis of Social Cognition: Using EEG Measurse to Explore False-Belief Processing Across the Lifespan. In Social and Affective Neuroscience Society (SANS) Conference. Los Angeles, California, USA.
    Theory of Mind (ToM), or social cognition, refers to the ability to understand, compute, and attribute mental states. Previous research has shown that even in healthy ageing, declines in social-cognitive abilities are often seen. The research presented here recruited younger (18-35 years-old) and older (60+ years-old) healthy adults to explore the neural basis of changes in social-cognition across the lifespan. Using EEG measures, we investigated the neural responses of older and younger participants when listening to stories involving true- or false-belief scenarios. In the stories, a character was described as having a true- or false-belief about an object’s location, before acting in a manner consistent or inconsistent with this ascribed belief-state. Participants also completed questionnaires (including the Autism Quotient and Empathy Quotient) to assess self-report measures of general social abilities, and how these may predict individual differences in belief-state processing. Results revealed differences in how true- and false-belief states were processed, with a significant role of belief-consistent versus belief-inconsistent outcomes; when the story character possessed a false-belief, belief-consistent outcomes led to a more negative-going N400 component than belief-inconsistent outcomes. These distinctions were more pronounced in older adults than in younger adults, suggesting a difference in how belief-states are processed.
  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., & Ferguson, H. (2017). Age and the role of executive function in perspective-taking. In Social and Affective Neuroscience Society (SANS) Conference. Los Angeles, California, USA.
    It has been suggested that, as we age, it is more difficult to take another person’s perspective. In addition, an age-related decline in executive function has been reported. This study therefore investigated the age-related differences in perspective-taking and whether executive function may underlie reduced perspective-taking ability in older age. Younger, middle-aged and older adults completed a level-1 visual perspective-taking task (with eye-tracking), and a battery of executive function tasks to assess memory, planning, flexibility and inhibitory control. Older adults had poorer inhibitory control, flexibility, and working memory, but comparable planning ability, compared to younger adults. Reaction times in the visual perspective-taking task significantly increased from young, to middle-aged, to older adults. In addition, older adults were impaired when judging another’s perspective when their own perspective differed, indicating a higher degree of egocentric bias in older adults. Statistical models examined how visual perspective-taking ability is related to individual differences in executive function across adulthood. Overall, there is a specific impairment in taking another’s perspective when there is interference from our own perspective in late adulthood. This study therefore discusses how the decline in executive function may underlie difficulties in taking another’s perspective in later life.
  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., & Ferguson, H. (2017). The mirror neuron system across the lifespan and its role in social cognition. In Social and Affective Neuroscience Society (SANS) Conference. Los Angeles, California, USA.
    The human mirror neuron system may have an important role in social cognition. Difficulties in social cognitive abilities have been reported with increasing age. However, the mirror neuron system and its relationship with social cognitive abilities have not yet been investigated in healthy aging. The current study used sensorimotor mu desynchronization (composed of alpha and low beta activity) as an EEG marker of the human mirror neuron system. Participants aged 18 to 86-years-old completed a hand movement observation task during EEG recording. Firstly, participants completed a 2-minute resting-state EEG as a reference period and, secondly, watched different video clips that depicted either a static hand or various hand actions, such as locking a door or clicking fingers. To measure social cognitive abilities, participants completed a self-other perspective-taking task, a theory of mind task and an empathy task. Sensorimotor mu desynchronization across the pre-motor cortex, motor cortex and supplementary motor area was correlated with age. In addition, statistical models examined how sensorimotor mu desynchronization is related to individual differences in self-other perspective-taking, theory of mind and empathy abilities. Therefore, this study reports the relationship between the mirror neuron system and social cognitive abilities in healthy aging.
  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., & Ferguson, H. (2017). The aging mirror neuron system: EEG activation during biological motion observation. In Cognitive Neuroscience Society Annual meeting. San Francisco, CA, USA.
    The human mirror neuron system may be an important mechanism for social cognition, such as for understanding other's actions and intentions. Healthy aging is associated with general cognitive declines and difficulties with these social cognitive abilities. However, the mirror neuron system has not yet been investigated in healthy aging. Sensorimotor mu desynchronization, composed of alpha and low beta activity, has been used as an EEG marker of the human mirror neuron system. We examined age-related differences in sensorimotor alpha and low beta activation across the pre-motor cortex, motor cortex and supplementary motor area during hand movement observation. Younger (18-35 years-old) and older adults (65+ years-old) completed a hand movement observation task. Initially, participants performed a 2-minute resting-state EEG as a reference period. Subsequently, participants watched different video clips (3s in duration) depicting either a static hand or various hand actions, such as locking a door or clicking fingers. For younger adults, we replicated previous findings of greater alpha and low beta desychronization across the sensorimotor cortex during hand movement observation compared to static hand observation. Interestingly, we found that this sensorimotor desynchronization was significantly greater for older adults compared to younger adults. Therefore, older adults activated their pre-motor cortex, motor cortex and supplementary motor area more than younger adults when they observed a hand action compared to when they observed a static hand. This study therefore suggests increased activation of the human mirror neuron system in older life.
  • Black, J., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2017). Imagining Impossible Counterfactual Worlds in Autism: An Eye Tracking Study. In Experimental Psychology Society meeting. Belfast, UK.
  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., & Ferguson, H. (2017). Age-related differences in visual perspective-taking. In Experimental Psychology Society Meeting. London, UK.
    Emerging research has highlighted that despite high performance on explicit tasks, healthy adults demonstrate difficulties on implicit tasks when another person’s point of view conflicts with their own. This study examined how these perspective-taking abilities change across the life-span and how executive functions predict performance. Younger (18-40 years-old) and older (65-80 years-old) adults completed a level-1 and a level-2 visual perspective-taking task (with eye-tracking), and a battery of executive function tasks. Older adults had poorer inhibitory control and working memory, but comparable shifting and planning ability, compared to younger adults. Older adults were slower overall in both visual perspective-taking tasks. In addition, older adults showed specific impairments when there was a conflict between their own and another’s perspective. This pattern was also examined in gaze behaviour and pupillometry analysis. Egocentric interference in the level 1 visual perspective taking task (i.e., how much their own perspective interfered with ‘other’ judgements) was related to shifting ability and working memory in the younger adults only. However, egocentric interference in the level 2 visual perspective taking task was related to inhibitory control in the older adults. Overall, older adults displayed an enhanced self-bias in both level 1 and 2 visual perspective taking.
  • Spinner, L., Cameron, L., & Ferguson, H. (2016). Children and Parent’s looking preferences for gender-typed toys: Evidence from eye-tracking analysis. In Conference of the European Association for Developmental Psychology. Netherlands. Retrieved from https://www.ecdp2017.nl/wp-content/uploads/sites/43/2017/08/ECDP2017-Abstract-book-V2.compressed.pdf
  • Bradford, E., Brunsdon, V., & Ferguson, H. (2016). Mapping the Relationship Between Theory of Mind and Executive Functioning in Adulthood. In Psychonomic Society Annual Meeting. Boston, MA, USA.
    A vital part of successful everyday social interaction is the ability to infer information about others. Much prior research has demonstrated a strong link between Theory of Mind (ToM) and Executive Functioning (EF) abilities, particularly in young children. Less is known about the relationship between ToM and EF in adulthood, or the precise breakdown of which components of EF modulate specific aspects of ToM. The current research employed a battery of tasks that tapped different aspects of ToM (including emotion recognition, intention reasoning, and perspective-taking) and EF skills (inhibition, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and planning) to tease apart potentially different relationships between separable EF components in predicting success on different ToM tasks. Results from adult participants (20-50 years old) demonstrated a key role of working memory and inhibition, suggesting the importance of these two abilities in successful engagement in higher-level ToM, even in adulthood.
  • Donevska, G., Brunsdon, V., Surtees, A., & Ferguson, H. (2016). Caloric vestibular stimulation facilitates spatial, but not visual, perspective-taking. In Psychonomic Annual Meeting. Boston, USA.
    Several vestibular areas overlap with those involved in perspective-taking (Deroualle & Lopez, 2014). This study investigated whether caloric vestibular stimulation (CVS) would enhance perspective-taking, specifically level-2 perspective-taking due to the hypothesised involvement of mental rotation in these processes (Surtees et al., 2013). Thirty participants completed a two-part study. In both sessions, participants wore a thermoneuromodulation device. In one session, the device delivered active CVS. In the other session (counterbalanced), the device delivered sham CVS. During both sessions, participants completed a mental rotation task, an inhibition task, and a perspective-taking task with four conditions (visual/spatial X level-1/level-2). Overall, findings replicated Surtees et al.’s results. Additionally, active CVS facilitated mental rotation processes in spatial perspective-taking (not visual). However, there was no effect of CVS for the mental rotation or inhibition task. Therefore, vestibular stimulation seems to facilitate the speed at which someone can mentally rotate to another person’s perspective.
  • Brunsdon, V., Bradford, E., & Ferguson, H. (2016). Age-related differences in visual perspective-taking. In Psychonomic Society Annual Meeting. Boston, MA, USA.
    Emerging research has highlighted that despite high performance on explicit tasks, healthy adults demonstrate difficulties on implicit tasks when another person’s point of view conflicts with their own. This study examined how these perspective-taking abilities change across the life-span and how executive functions and social abilities predict performance. Younger (20-40 years-old) and older (60-80 years-old) adults completed a level-1 visual perspective-taking task (with eye-tracking), a Stroop task and a task-switching task. The Autism Spectrum Quotient and Empathy Quotient provided measures of social ability. Older adults were slower overall in the visual perspective-taking task. In addition, older adults showed specific impairments when there was a conflict between their own and the avatar’s perspective. This pattern was also reflected in gaze behaviour and pupillometry analysis. Statistical models examined how visual perspective-taking ability is related to individual differences in executive functions and social abilities in younger and older adults.

Thesis

  • Barzy, M. (2020). The Effects of Social Context and Perspective on Language Processing: Evidence from Autism Spectrum Disorder.
    This thesis aimed to provide new insights into the role of perspective and non-linguistic context in language processing among autistic and typically developing (TD) adults. The mental simulation account and the one-step model state that language is mentally simulated and interpreted in context, suggesting that these processes are activated online while linguistic input is processed. Little is known of whether the same processes are activated in autism. In seven experiments (four were fully pre-registered), I used offline and online measures (e.g. EEG, eye-tracking) to investigate how social factors, such as the perspective, speaker's voice, emotional states of the characters, and topic of conversation influence language comprehension in both lab and real-life settings, in autism and TD adults. Based on the weak central coherence (WCC), and the complex information processing disorder (CIPD) theories, it was expected that autistic adults would struggle to integrate the social context with language, or at least show some subtle delays in the time-course of these anticipation/integration processes. First, I failed to find the same effect as previous findings, showing enhanced processing for personalized language, suggesting that this process is dependent on individual preferences in perspective-taking and task demands. Furthermore, I found that contrary to the WCC, autistic individuals had an intact ability to integrate social context online, while extracting the meaning from language. There were subtle differences in the time-course and strength of these processes between autistic and TD adults under high cognitive load. Findings are in line with CIPD hypothesis, showing that online language processes are disrupted as task demands increase, which consequently affect the quality of their social interactions. Future research should further investigate how these subtle differences impact social communication abilities in everyday life in autism.
  • Smith, L. (2017). Vestibular Contributions to Human Memory.
    The vestibular system is an ancient structure which supports the detection and control of self-motion. The pervasiveness of this sensory system is evidenced by the diversity of its anatomical projections and the profound impact it has on a range of higher level functions, particularly spatial memory. The aim of this thesis was to better characterise the association between the vestibular system and human memory; while many studies have explored this association from a biological perspective few have done so from a psychological one. In Chapter 1, evidence was drawn from 101 neuro-otology patients to show that vestibular dysfunction can exert a direct negative effect on memory and allied cognitive processes, independently of age and comorbid psychiatric and fatigue symptoms. In Chapters 3 and 4, the separability of these cognitive, psychiatric and fatigue symptoms was further demonstrated in eight traumatic brain injury patients who, following a programme of daily vestibular stimulation, showed cognitive improvement and electrophysiological modulation in the absence of psychiatric or fatigue-related changes. Finally in Chapter 5, a set of normative experiments indicated that, beyond any generic arousal effect (unspecific to any particular cognitive process), visual memory can utilise temporally coincident vestibular activation to help individuate one memory from another. Together these findings help clarify the range of and manner in which vestibular signals interact with visual short-term memory and allied cognitive processes. The findings also have clinical implications for the diagnosis and management of vestibular, neuropsychiatric and amnesic conditions.

Forthcoming

  • Barzy, M., Ferguson, H., & Williams, D. (2020). Perspective influences eye movements during real-life conversation: Mentalising about self vs. others in autism. Autism.
    Socio-communication is profoundly impaired among autistic individuals. Difficulties representing others’ mental states have been linked to modulations of gaze and speech, which have also been shown to be impaired in autism. Despite these observed impairments in ‘real-world’ communicative settings, research has mostly focused on lab-based experiments, where the language is highly structured. In a pre-registered experiment, we recorded eye movements and verbal responses while adults (N=50) engaged in a real-life conversation. Using a novel approach, we also manipulated the perspective that participants adopted by asking them questions that were related to the self, a familiar other, or an unfamiliar other. Results replicated previous work, showing reduced attention to socially-relevant information among autistic participants (i.e. less time looking at the experimenter’s face, and more time looking around the background), compared to typically-developing controls. Importantly, perspective modulated social attention in both groups; talking about an unfamiliar other reduced attention to potentially distracting or resource-demanding social information, and increased looks to non-social background. Social attention did not differ between self and familiar other contexts, reflecting greater shared knowledge for familiar/similar others. Autistic participants spent more time looking at the background when talking about an unfamiliar other vs. themselves. Future research should investigate the developmental trajectory of this effect and the cognitive mechanisms underlying it.
  • Spinner, L., Cameron, L., & Ferguson, H. (2020). Children and parent’s looking preferences to gender-typed objects: Evidence from eye-tracking. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.journals.elsevier.com/journal-of-experimental-child-psychology/
    Differences between children and parents’ implicit and explicit gender stereotypes were investigated in two experiments. For the first time, the visual world paradigm compared parents’ and 7-year-old children’s looking preferences towards masculine- and feminine-typed objects stereotypically associated with a story character’s gender. In Experiment 1, participants listened to sentences that included a verb that inferred intentional action with an object (e.g. ‘Lilly/Alexander will play with the toy”), and in Experiment 2 the verb was replaced with a neutral verb (e.g. ‘Lilly/Alexander will trip over the toy”). A questionnaire assessed participants’ explicit gender stereotype endorsement (and knowledge, Experiment 2) of children’s toys. Results revealed that parents and children displayed similar implicit, but different explicit, stereotypes to one another. In Experiment 1, both displayed looking preferences towards the masculine-typed object when the story character was male, and looking preferences toward the feminine-typed object when the character was female. No gender effects were found with a neutral verb in Experiment 2, reinforcing the impact of gender stereotypes on implicit processing, and showing that the effects are not simply driven by gender stereotypic name-object associations. In the explicit measure, parents did not endorse the gender stereotypes related to toys, but appeared egalitarian, whilst children’s responses were gender-stereotypic.
  • Black, J., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2017). Imagining Counterfactual Worlds in Autism Spectrum Disorder. In International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR). San Francisco, USA.
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