Portrait of Dr Marta Ponari

Dr Marta Ponari

Lecturer in Cognitive Psychology
Deputy School Director of Education (Associate Lecturers Co-ordinator and Training)

About

Dr Marta Ponari completed a BSc in Psychology in 2004 before specialising in Neuropsychology and Neuroscience with a two-year MSc from the University of Campania (Caserta, Italy). After training as a clinical neuropsychologist and working as a research assistant in experimental psychology, she started a PhD supported by a studentship from the Italian Ministry of Research (MURST). In 2009, she spent ten months as a visiting researcher in the Social Perception lab at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (London). She completed her PhD in January 2011, and a few months later she moved back to London to work as a post-doctoral research associate at the Department of Experimental Psychology, University College London.

Marta joined the University of Kent in late 2014, as a lecturer in cognitive psychology at the School of Psychology. 

Research interests

Dr Marta Ponari's research to date has focused on embodied cognition, with a particular interest in the embodiment of emotions. 

Her research mainly focuses on two strands: 

Strand 1 - How do we recognise facial expressions?
When processing emotional stimuli, people activate sensory and motor areas of the brain that overlap with those that are active during experience of the same emotions ('sensory-motor simulation'). For example, we know that areas of the brain that are active when people express an emotion are also active when they perceive the same emotion expressed by someone else. This is also typically reflected in facial mimicry: people observing an emotional facial expression activate the same muscles as if they were producing the same expression themselves.

Marta is interested in whether sensory-motor simulation and facial mimicry have a causal / facilitatory role in emotion processing and recognition. 

Strand 2 - How do we process emotional words?

Embodiment can also occur when we process emotional language (words and sentences with an emotional connotation). Marta is interested in investigating the role of sensory-motor simulation in processing  emotional language. 

Marta's research within both strands uses a combination of behavioural, eye tracking, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), psychophysiological methods (electromyography, EEG, heart rate, skin conductance) and populations (healthy adults, neurological patients, typically developing children as well as children with Specific Language Impairment and Autism).

More information about the ongoing projects can be found at www.ememlab.co.uk

Teaching

Convenor and Lecturer

SP305 Introduction to Psychology II
SP605 Cognitive Psychology

Lecturer

SP604 Biological Psychology
SP611 The Neuroscience of Cognitive Disorders
SP616 Language and Communication
SP827 Current Issues in Cognitive Psychology and Neuropsychology

Supervision

Dr Marta Ponari welcomes applications from prospective PhD students who would like to join the lab. 

Deadlines for University of Kent scholarships are typically in late January. To apply for a PhD, it's best to email Marta in October/November with a CV and an idea of what you want to focus your project on.

Topics can be flexible within the research interests of the lab. Applications after December can only be considered for self-funded PhD candidates.

Current research students

  • Giulia Mangiaracina (School of Psychology Studentship): The role of interoception and proprioception during the perception of others' emotional face expressions
  • Marcus Sorensen: TBA

Professional

Grants and Awards

TBATBATBA

Professional memberships

  • Psychonomic Society
  • European Society for Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (ESCAN)
  • Società Italiana di Neuropsicologia (SINP)

  • Reviewing

    Marta is a reviewer for more than 15 cognitive psychology and neuroscience journals.
    Publons verified reviewer profile: https://publons.com/author/197141/marta-ponari

    Publications

    Article

    • Ponari, M., Norbury, C., Rotaru, A., Lenci, A., & Vigliocco, G. (2018). Learning Abstract Words and Concepts: Insights from Developmental Language Disorder. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373. doi:10.1098/rstb.2017.0140
      Some explanations of abstract word learning suggest that these words are learnt primarily from linguistic input, using statistical co-occurrences of words in language whereas concrete words can also rely on non-linguistic, experiential information. According to this hypothesis, we expect that, if the learner is not able to fully exploit the information in the linguistic input, abstract words should be affected more than concrete ones. Embodied approaches, instead, argue that both abstract and concrete words can rely on experiential information and, therefore, there might not be any linguistic primacy. Here, we test the role of linguistic input in the development of abstract knowledge with children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) and Typically Developing (TD) children aged 8-13. We show that DLD children, who by definition have impoverished language, do not show a disproportionate impairment for abstract words in lexical decision and definition tasks. These results indicate that linguistic information does not have a primary role in the learning of abstract concepts and words, rather, it would play a significant role in semantic development across all domains of knowledge.
    • Vigliocco, G., Ponari, M., & Norbury, C. (2018). Learning and Processing Abstract Words and Concepts: Insights from Typical and Atypical Development. Topics in Cognitive Science. doi:10.1111/tops.12347
      The paper describes two plausible hypotheses concerning the learning of abstract words and concepts. According to a first hypothesis, children would learn abstract words by extracting co-occurrences among words in linguistic input, using for example, mechanisms as described by models of Distributional Semantics. According to a second hypothesis, children would exploit the fact that abstract words tend to have more emotional associations than concrete words to infer that they refer to internal/mental states. Each hypothesis makes specific predictions with regards to when and which abstract words are more likely to be learnt, also they make different predictions concerning the impact of developmental disorders. We start by providing a review of work characterising how abstract words and concepts are learnt in development, especially between the ages of 6 and 12. Second, we review some work from our group that test the two hypotheses above. This work investigates typically developing (TD) children and children with atypical development (Developmental Language Disorders (DLD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) with and without language deficits). We conclude that the use of strategies based on emotional information, or on co-occurrences in language may play a role at different developmental stages.
    • Ponari, M., Norbury, C., & Vigliocco, G. (2017). Acquisition of abstract concepts is influenced by emotional valence. Developmental Science, 21. doi:10.1111/desc.12549
      There is considerable lack of evidence concerning the linguistic and cognitive skills underpinning abstract vocabulary acquisition. The present study considers the role of emotional valence in providing an embodied learning experience in which to anchor abstract meanings. First, analyses of adult ratings of age-of-acquisition, concreteness and valence demonstrate that abstract words acquired early tend to be emotionally valenced. Second, auditory Lexical Decision accuracies of children aged 6-7, 8-9, and 10-11 years (n = 20 per group) complement these analyses, demonstrating that emotional valence facilitates processing of abstract words, but not concrete. These findings provide the first evidence that young, school-aged children are sensitive to emotional valence and that this facilitates acquisition of abstract words.
    • Ponari, M., Rodriguez-Cuadrado, S., Vinson, D., Fox, N., Costa, A., & Vigliocco, G. (2015). Processing advantage for emotional words in bilingual speakers. Emotion, 15, 644-652. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000061
      Effects of emotion on word processing are well established in monolingual speakers. However, studies that have assessed whether affective features of words undergo the same processing in a native and non-native language have provided mixed results: studies that have found differences between L1 and L2 processing, attributed it to the fact that a second language (L2) learned late in life would not be processed affectively, because affective associations are established during childhood. Other studies suggest that adult learners show similar effects of emotional features in L1 and L2. Differences in affective processing of L2 words can be linked to age and context of learning, proficiency, language dominance, and degree of similarity between the L2 and the L1. Here, in a lexical decision task on tightly matched negative, positive and neutral words, highly proficient English speakers from typologically different L1 showed the same facilitation in processing emotionally valenced words as native English speakers, regardless of their L1, the age of English acquisition or the frequency and context of English use.
    • Grossi, D., Soricelli, A., Ponari, M., Salvatore, E., Quarantelli, M., Prinster, A., & Trojano, L. (2014). Structural connectivity in a single case of progressive prosopagnosia: The role of the right inferior longitudinal fasciculus. Cortex, 56, 111-120. doi:doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2012.09.010
      Progressive prosopagnosia (PP) is a clinical syndrome characterized by a progressive and selective inability to recognize and identify faces of familiar people. Here we report a patient (G.S.) with PP, mainly related to a prominent deficit in recognition of familiar faces, without a semantic (cross-modal) impairment. An in-depth evaluation showed that his deficit extended to other classes of objects, both living and non-living. A follow-up neuropsychological assessment did not reveal substantial changes after about 1 year. Structural MRI showed predominant right temporal lobe atrophy.

      Diffusion tensor imaging was performed to elucidate structural connectivity of the inferior longitudinal fasciculus (ILF) and the inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus (IFOF), the two major tracts that project through the core fusiform region to the anterior temporal and frontal cortices, respectively. Right ILF was markedly reduced in G.S., while left ILF and IFOFs were apparently preserved. These data are in favour of a crucial role of the neural circuit subserved by right ILF in the pathogenesis of PP.
    • Vinson, D., Ponari, M., & Vigliocco, G. (2014). How does emotional content affect lexical processing?. Cognition & Emotion, 28, 737-746. doi:doi:10.1080/02699931.2013.851068
      Even single words in isolation can evoke emotional reactions, but the mechanisms by which emotion is involved in automatic lexical processing are unclear. Previous studies using extremely similar materials and methods have yielded apparently incompatible patterns of results. In much previous work, however, words' emotional content is entangled with other non-emotional characteristics such as frequency of occurrence, familiarity and age of acquisition, all of which have potential consequences for lexical processing themselves. In the present study, the authors compare different models of emotion using the British Lexicon Project, a large-scale freely available lexical decision database. After controlling for the potentially confounding effects of non-emotional variables, a variety of statistical approaches revealed that emotional words, whether positive or negative, are processed faster than neutral words. This effect appears to be categorical rather than graded; is not modulated by emotional arousal; and is not limited to words explicitly referring to emotions. The authors suggest that emotional connotations facilitate processing due to the grounding of words' meanings in emotional experience.
    • Ponari, M., Trojano, L., Grossi, D., & Conson, M. (2013). “Avoiding or approaching eyes”? Introversion/extraversion affects the gaze-cueing effect. Cognitive Processing, 14, 293-299. doi:doi:10.1007/s10339-013-0559-z
      We investigated whether the extra-/introversion personality dimension can influence processing of others’ eye gaze direction and emotional facial expression during a target detection task. On the basis of previous evidence showing that self-reported trait anxiety can affect gaze-cueing with emotional faces, we also verified whether trait anxiety can modulate the influence of intro-/extraversion on behavioral performance. Fearful, happy, angry or neutral faces, with either direct or averted gaze, were presented before the target appeared in spatial locations congruent or incongruent with stimuli’s eye gaze direction. Results showed a significant influence of intra-/extraversion dimension on gaze-cueing effect for angry, happy, and neutral faces with averted gaze. Introverts did not show the gaze congruency effect when viewing angry expressions, but did so with happy and neutral faces; extraverts showed the opposite pattern. Importantly, the influence of intro-/extraversion on gaze-cueing was not mediated by trait anxiety. These findings demonstrated that personality differences can shape processing of interactions between relevant social signals.
    • Conson, M., Ponari, M., Monteforte, E., Ricciato, G., Sarà, M., Grossi, D., & Trojano, L. (2013). Explicit recognition of emotional facial expressions is shaped by expertise: evidence from professional actors. Frontiers in Psychology, 4. doi:doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00382
      Can reading others' emotional states be shaped by expertise? We assessed processing of emotional facial expressions in professional actors trained either to voluntary activate mimicry to reproduce character's emotions (as foreseen by the “Mimic Method”), or to infer others' inner states from reading the emotional context (as foreseen by “Stanislavski Method”). In explicit recognition of facial expressions (Experiment 1), the two experimental groups differed from each other and from a control group with no acting experience: the Mimic group was more accurate, whereas the Stanislavski group was slower. Neither acting experience, instead, influenced implicit processing of emotional faces (Experiment 2). We argue that expertise can selectively influence explicit recognition of others' facial expressions, depending on the kind of “emotional expertise”.
    • Ponari, M., Conson, M., D’Amico, N., Grossi, D., & Trojano, L. (2012). Mapping correspondence between facial mimicry and emotion recognition in healthy subjects. Emotion, 12, 1398-1403. doi:doi:10.1037/a0028588
      We aimed at verifying the hypothesis that facial mimicry is causally and selectively involved in emotion recognition. For this purpose, in Experiment 1, we explored the effect of tonic contraction of muscles in upper or lower half of participants' face on their ability to recognize emotional facial expressions. We found that the "lower" manipulation specifically impaired recognition of happiness and disgust, the "upper" manipulation impaired recognition of anger, while both manipulations affected recognition of fear; recognition of surprise and sadness were not affected by either blocking manipulations. In Experiment 2, we verified whether emotion recognition is hampered by stimuli in which an upper or lower half-face showing an emotional expression is combined with a neutral half-face. We found that the neutral lower half-face interfered with recognition of happiness and disgust, whereas the neutral upper half impaired recognition of anger; recognition of fear and sadness was impaired by both manipulations, whereas recognition of surprise was not affected by either manipulation. Taken together, the present findings support simulation models of emotion recognition and provide insight into the role of mimicry in comprehension of others' emotional facial expressions.
    • Pistoia, F., Conson, M., Trojano, L., Grossi, D., Ponari, M., Colonnese, C., Pistoia, M., Carducci, F., & Sara, M. (2010). Impaired Conscious Recognition of Negative Facial Expressions in Patients with Locked-in Syndrome. Journal of Neuroscience, 30, 7838-7844. doi:doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.6300-09.2010
      The involvement of facial mimicry in different aspects of human emotional processing is widely debated. However, little is known about
      relationships between voluntary activation of facial musculature and conscious recognition of facial expressions. To address this issue,
      we assessed severely motor-disabled patients with complete paralysis of voluntary facial movements due to lesions of the ventral pons
      [locked-in syndrome (LIS)]. Patients were required to recognize others’ facial expressions and to rate their own emotional responses to
      presentation of affective scenes.LISpatientswere selectivelyimpairedin recognition of negativefacial expressions,thusdemonstratingthatthe
      voluntary activation of mimicry represents a high-level simulation mechanism crucially involved in explicit attribution of emotions.

    Conference or workshop item

    • Vinson, D., Ponari, M., & Vigliocco, G. (2013). How does emotional content affect lexical processing?. In Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1540-1545). Berlin, Germany: Cognitive Science Society.
      It is now generally accepted that words’ emotional content plays a role in lexical processing, but the literature offers incompatible findings concerning what this role may be. Here we use a large sample of lexical decision data (British Lexicon Project, Keuleers et al., 2012) and we carry out a series of analyses differing in the way emotional variables are treated. A variety of statistical approaches yielded common conclusions: when confounding variables are taken into account, emotional words, whether positive or negative, are processed faster than neutral words. This effect is categorical rather than graded; is not modulated by emotional arousal;
      and is not limited to words explicitly referring to emotions. We discuss this in terms of internally grounding words’ meanings in emotional experience, akin to the manner in which concepts may be grounded in perception and action.
    • Trojano, L., Ponari, M., & Conson, M. (2011). Facial expressions and eye gaze: fundamental cues for social interactions. In Italian Workshop on Neural Networks (pp. 220-227). Vietri sul Mare: IOS Press. doi:10.3233/978-1-60750-972-1-220
      We, as humans beings, draw inferences about others' emotions, intentions, and state of mind to deduce their mental states and intentions. Analogously, by observing where other individuals gaze at, we grasp their focus of interest as we know that people tend to look at what they like and look away from what they dislike. Recognition of facial expression is related to functioning of specific mechanisms and brain structures, among which the amygdala plays a pivotal role. It is currently debated whether the very mechanisms and neural structures are responsible for emotion recognition and production, but data on brain-damaged patients would indicate that a defect in recognizing facial expressions can be independent from deficits in producing the same expressions. This neuropsychological dissociation calls for future studies to clarify mechanisms related to production and recognition of emotions. As regards eye gaze, development of gaze perception in infants allows understanding of other people's intentions and mental states. Several developmental disorders are related to impairments in processing other's gaze as in the case of autism, but recent behavioral data show that processing of eye gaze and facial expressions is highly variable even in normal individuals, and can be modulated by factors such as high levels of trait anxiety, autistic-like traits or introversion.

    Monograph

    • Vigliocco, G., Norbury, C., & Ponari, M. (2017). How do young children learn abstract concepts? - Final public report. Nuffield foundation. Retrieved from http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/sites/default/files/files/Vigliocco%2040477%20-%20Full%20public%20report.pdf
      Research by Gabriella Vigliocco, Courtenay Norbury and Marta Ponari (supported by the Nuffield Foundation) uncovers some basic facts about how children learn words and concepts like "idea", "philosophy" and "culture"
    • Vigliocco, G., Norbury, C., & Ponari, M. (2017). Learning abstract concepts: the role of linguistic and affective development. Briefing sheet. Nuffield Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/sites/default/files/files/Vigliocco%2040477%20-%20Briefing%20Sheet.pdf

    Forthcoming

    • Ponari, M., Norbury, C., & Vigliocco, G. (2020). The role of emotional valence in learning novel abstract concepts. Developmental Psychology. doi:10.1037/dev0001091
      A recent study by Ponari et al. (2017), showed that emotional valence (i.e., whether a word evokes positive, negative or no affect) predicts age-of-acquisition ratings, and that up to the age of 8-9, children know abstract emotional words better than neutral ones. On the basis of these findings, emotional valence has been argued to provide a bootstrapping mechanism for the acquisition of abstract concepts. However, no previous work has directly assessed whether words’ valence, or valence of the context in which words are used, facilitates learning of unknown abstract words. Here, we investigate whether valence supports acquisition of novel abstract concepts. Seven to 10 years old children were taught novel abstract words and concepts (words typically learnt at an older age and that children did not know); words were either valenced (positive or negative) or neutral. We also manipulated the context in which words were presented: for one group of children, the teaching strategy emphasised emotional information; for the other, it emphasised encyclopaedic, non-emotional information. Abstract words with emotional valence were learnt better than neutral abstract words by children up to the age of 8-9, replicating previous findings; no effect of teaching strategy was found. These results indicate that emotional valence supports abstract concepts acquisition, and further suggest that it is the valence information intrinsic to the word’s meaning to have a role, rather than the valence of the context in which the word is learnt.
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