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ESRC-DTP Interdisciplinary Studentship (the role of visual prediction in reading)

Linguistics, Faculty of Modern & Medieval Languages

Applications are invited for a 1+3-year PhD studentship (MPhil + PhD) based in Linguistics, as part of the ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership at the University of Cambridge. This studentship is designed for students with interdisciplinary interest in linguistics and psychology/neuroscience and it requires the student to complete the MPhil in Theoretical and Applied Linguistics following an interdisciplinary pathway in the first year of the appointment. This step will be important to train the student in the multidisciplinary methodologies and skills required to conduct this study. The project will be based in the Psycholinguistics lab in Linguistics (http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk/node/865/language-acquisition-language-processing-research-area). Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the project, the student will also complete a substantial amount of work at the Adaptive Brain Lab of the Department of Psychology  (http://www.abg.psychol.cam.ac.uk), with supervision in both disciplines. The PhD student will work with Prof. Ianthi Tsimpli and with Prof. Zoe Kourtzi as a member of the CAMPAL research group (Cambridge Processing and Acquisition of Language).

Background in psychology and/or language acquisition will be an asset.

Brief project description: Making predictions about future events challenges us to extract structure from streams of sensory signals that are often initially incomprehensible. Learning to extract meaningful structure allows us to interpret incoming signals rapidly, and critically to predict upcoming events. Mastering this skill is critical for interacting in dynamic environments and developing complex cognitive functions such as learning language or music.

Previous work has shown that predicting the orientation of visual stimuli is influenced by previous experience. In Luft et al. (2015) participants were firstly presented with gratings biased to a certain orientation. When presented with a target stimulus, participants generated brain patterns (recorded with fMRI) that could not be ascribed to the stimulus per se, but they suggest that participants’ predictions about the orientation (based on the habituation phase) were encoded in the brain. 

Similarly, reading is a form of visual pattern recognition. When reading, proficient readers rely on the associations between various letters and the associations between words to perform the task and assign an interpretation. Decoding letters and words is a process that is influenced by the predictions made about them. Successful decoding can activate linguistic knowledge which leads to reading comprehension, the ultimate goal of reading. Visual prediction may thus play an important role in reading, but the topic remains a relatively new domain of research. This PhD project aims to fill the gap. The project will include monolingual and bilingual speakers, since the role of prediction may be substantially different in participants that rely on a unique language system and participants that use two languages (and have, thus, two different sets of predictions).

The project will involve interdisciplinary methodologies including behavioural testing, eye-tracking and brain imaging (EEG/ERP).

Expressions of interest should be addressed to Prof. Ianthi Tsimpli, imt20@cam.ac.uk, or Prof. Zoe Kourtzi, zk240@cam.ac.uk.

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