Fully funded PhD position in developmental psychology

The Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) in London is offering a 3-year fully funded PhD position in developmental psychology. The CBCD is a world leading international research centre exploring the links between brain and behavioural development (https://cbcd.bbk.ac.uk/). This project will make use of the newly developed Toddlerlab: a dedicated 5-story research facility developed for studying toddler and preschool development in naturalistic environments. The facility includes specialist labs such as the Home lab, the Preschool lab, and the CAVE visual reality lab, all fitted with motion capture, head mounded eye-tracking and wearable EEG and fNIRS.

Supervisors :  Dr. Ori Ossmy (www.oriossmy.com)

Context

This PhD project will run as part of a 4.5-year Leverhulme Trust funded research programme exploring the behavioural, neural, and computational origins of human planning and problem solving and how they are affected by the source of information. The preschool years (3- to 5-year-olds) are a particularly important developmental period because they correspond to a phase of very rapid development in the planning, self-control, and multi-tasking skills necessary for complex problem solving.

Traditional theories argue that human planning relies on the ability to form internal models of task contingencies to evaluate possible actions and predict the optimal act. According to this "top-down" approach, developmental improvements in planning depend on children's ability to learn the world's constraints and statistical regularities. However, this approach is limited in providing insights into underlying mechanisms because it focuses on what is planned, but not on how planning occurs moment-to-moment. Based on the embodied theory of planning, recent studies adopted a ‘‘bottom-up’’ approach by investigating the typically hidden interplay between real-time perceptual, neural, and motor processes underlying planning. Findings showed that information gathering corresponds to improvements in planning.

Unlike traditional work in which information about task parameters is taken for granted as if the environment were already known before movement commenced, the bottom-up approach showed this is not the case. Children do not simply ‘‘know’’ all the relevant information. How could they? They need to deliberately attend to perceptual information that is predictive of the future and would allow them to plan ahead. Yet, knowledge gaps in this theory exist about how the relations between information gathering and action planning (Q1) emerge from real-time interplay between perceptual, cognitive, and motor processes; (Q2) are manipulated by sensory sources; and (Q3) relate to high-level planning.

Project Description

This project integrates developmental psychology, neuroscience, and computer science to determine developmental changes in how planning unfolds moment to moment (from gathering perceptual information, to neural processing, to action execution) and how the sensory modality affects those changes. Our key motivating hypothesis in this project is that changes in children's sensory modalities lead to developmental changes in action planning by calibrating a real-time interactive system of perceptual, neural, and motor processes, which in turn facilitates high-level planning at a later age. We test three specific hypotheses with three aims:

(AIM1) Test changing relations longitudinally between information gathering and action planning. We hypothesize that efficient and adaptive planning emerges from developmental changes in when and how children gather sensory information. Specifically, we predict an earlier shift in information gathering with development that leads to better planning. For example, when using tools such as hammering a peg with a handle that points toward the non-dominant hand, children must plan a few steps ahead by grasping the hammer with a nonhabitual, underhand grip that allows for a smooth transition to an efficient, overhand grip to pound. Our hypothesis leads to the prediction that children's ability to plan their grip ahead of time relies on whether they learned to gather information about the hammer and the peg before acting.
(AIM2) Test the relations between sensory modality and action planning. We hypothesize that the source of perceptual information determines the effects of information gathering on planning. Specifically, we will test two predictions which follow this hypothesis. First, we predict that eliminating haptic information will force children to use earlier visual\perceptual cues and will enhance planning; and second, we predict that adding predictive auditory information will lead to more planning ahead and less trial-and-error testing.
(AIM3) Test developmental relations between information gathering and high-level planning. We hypothesize that information gathering during action planning at an early age predicts high-level planning at a later age. Specifically, we predict that individual differences in the manner and timing of information gathering during action planning will correspond to individual differences in performance in high-level planning tasks.

Significance

This project proposes a radical shift away from current theories of planning development which focus on a topdown approach. We will establish a new bottom-up theory by combining perception-action perspective, ecological systems approach, and traditionally disparate disciplines to deepen our understanding of processes underlying planning and how these depend on sensory experiences. If, as we suggest, planning development depends on the ability to gather information, then models of planning development will need to account for the sensory input. Understanding the relations between experiences and planning also has implications for the design of children’s environments such as daycare settings, classrooms, and playgrounds to facilitate learning opportunities.

Moreover, we will innovate an assessment for planning using a psychometric function including multiple measures (efficiency/flexibility/stability/generalizability) rather than a binary measure (success/failure). We will also create virtual environments that provide a platform for examining developmental changes in cognitive priors, object representations, reasoning, and learning processes.

Finally, we will generate unique longitudinal data that will advance research in behavioural and developmental science, neuroscience, animal research, artificial intelligence, robotics, and educational psychology through sharing of data, stimuli and analyses (Databrary/OSF/GitHub)

Requirements

We are looking for a highly-motivated candidate with strong experimental psychology and programming skills and a desire to make an impact in the intersection of cognitive neuroscience with developmental psychology.

The candidate must have evidence of outstanding undergraduate academic performance in either (developmental) cognitive science, psychology or computer science, artificial intelligence and ideally have (or be predicted to obtain) a strong Master’s degree in Cognitive/Developmental Neuroscience, or any cognate field (candidates will be asked to demonstrate how their background provides solid foundations to allow them to focus on the core aspects of this studentship).

Candidate must also demonstrate solid foundations in academic writing and presenting, in independently organising aspects of their research (e.g. through a previous dissertation if not publications) and experience of working with young children or infants.

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Prof. Dr. Ori Ossmy (ori.ossmy@bbk.ac.uk)

Further information about PhDs at BBK is available from:

Birkbeck Psychological Sciences: https://www.bbk.ac.uk/study/2022/phd/programmes/RMPPSYCH

Application are to be made through the standard MPhil/Phd application process describe in the weblink above. Candidates applying for this position must make it clear in their personal statement and answer to the “funding source” question on the form that they are applying for the Leverhulme funded studentship.

Closing date for applications is: 8th March 2023