During my MSc project, I used EEG to explore the electro-cortical correlates of multisensory integration in autism spectrum disorder. You can find my MSc thesis here. In my PhD, I investigated neural mechanisms of automatic imitation using fMRI. In my current postdoc, I am exploring the cognitive and neural mechanisms of aesthetic appreciation of visual art (paintings and dance). Past and current research projects are as follows:
Multisensory Integration in Autism
Abnormalities in sensory processing have been reported in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in all sensory modalities. Along with unimodal deficits, there is mounting evidence for a deficit in assimilating information across modalities, or multi-sensory integration (MSI), especially in affect perception. This project investigated the validity of an affective multisensory integration paradigm using dynamic stimuli of facial expressions for use in populations on the autism spectrum.
Functional Specificity and Automatic Imitation
Humans show an involuntary tendency to copy other people’s actions. Although automatic imitation builds rapport and affiliation between individuals, we do not copy actions indiscriminately. Instead, copying behaviors are guided by a selection mechanism, which inhibits some actions and prioritizes others. To date, the neural underpinnings of the inhibition of automatic imitation and differences between the sexes in imitation control are not well understood. Using larger sample sizes across two experiments (N=28, N=50) than other studies in the field investigating automatic imitation, we investigated the extent to which domain-general and domain-specific neural networks are engaged when humans inhibit or control their tendency to automatically imitate, and how these network engagements might differ between males and females.
Automatic Imitation and Cognitive Load
Automaticity has been argued to be a core feature of the mental processes that guide social interactions, such as those underpinning imitative behaviours. To date, however, there is little known about the automaticity of imitative tendencies. In the current study, we used a finger movement stimulus-response compatibility task to index processes associated with controlling the urge to copy other people’s actions. That is, we investigated whether the cognitive operations that generate imitative tendencies are relatively efficient or not, when a central resource is taxed heavily with non-social (letter strings) or social stimuli (faces and hand postures).
Automatic Imitation: fMRI Meta-Analysis
Humans copy other people without their conscious awareness, a behaviour known as automatic imitation. Although automatic imitation forms a key part of daily social interactions, we do not copy other people indiscriminately. Instead, we control imitative tendencies by prioritising some actions and inhibiting others. To date, neuroimaging studies investigating the control of automatic imitation have produced inconsistent findings. Some studies suggest that imitation control relies on a domain-specific neural circuit related to social cognition (the theory-of-mind network). In contrast, other studies show engagement of a domain-general neural circuit that is engaged during a diverse range of cognitive control tasks (the multiple demand network). Given the inconsistency of prior findings, in the current paper we avoided problems associated with interpreting individual studies by performing a meta-analysis by using a multi-level kernel density analysis to quantitatively identify consistent patterns of activation across functional magnetic resonance imaging studies investigating the control of imitation.
Individual differences in automatic imitation
Cognitive control refers to the ability of human beings to adapt flexibly and quickly to continuously changing environments. Several decades of research have identified a diverse range of mental processes that are associated with cognitive control but the extent to which shared systems underlie cognitive control in social and non-social contexts, as well as how these systems may vary across individuals, remains largely unexplored. By integrating methodological approaches from experimental and differential psychology, the current study is able to shine new light on the relationships between stable features of individuals, such as personality and sex, and the architecture of cognitive control systems using paradigms that index social (automatic imitation) and spatial processes.