Research interests and co-authors

Language psychology

Having grown up in a bilingual family, I've always been interested in how the brain does language. I've always been fascinated by how making sounds or squiggling shapes enables me to get a thought from inside my brain into the brains of others. Weird, eh? Growing up with two languages also raised my awareness of the sometimes arbitrary relationship between sounds (or squiggles) and meaning, and of the discrepancies between languages in terms of vocabulary (try translating shimmer, shine and glisten into French), expressions ("c'est le geste qui compte") and hidden meanings (ladybirds have nothing to do with ladies or birds; bats in French are "bald mice").

My psychology undergraduate dissertation, supervised by Dr Zazie Todd, explored hidden meanings in French and English, to see whether there were discrepancies across speakers of different languages in the meanings evoked by certain words because of the words which make up these words (e.g. ladybird). The data were pretty inconclusive, but that's ok, it was a fun project.

For my MSc, armed with a better grasp of experimental design, and some more fancy equipment, I studied eye movements in sentence processing, to see what kind of information we predict during sentence process (the general gist, or the next pronoun to be used). Yes, I studied pronoun processing, but it was all about how we make use of probabilities to facilitate speedy processing of sentences. For instance, in the sentence "Mary praised John because..." you would expect "he did something amazing". Previous research had repeatedly shown difficulties in processing the continuation "she thought he was great" and authors had suggested that this was because readers anticipate the pronoun "he" after "because". However, they didn't test sentences such as "Mary praised John because there had been some great reviews of his latest show". So that's what I set out to do, supervised by Dr Patrick Sturt, and the outcome was published here.

Music psychology

The bilingual family I grew up in was (and still is) also very musical. This led to a second fascination of how a combination of sounds can sound nice, or not so nice, in time or not, surprising, disturbing, and, as we like to put it "crunchy". Two main questions were fuelled by the things I was studying in my joint honours degree: How can music express emotions? and Does being able to express emotions through music, where language can be limited, help people process their emotions better?

The first question I left until my PhD, apart from a few undergraduate essays in which I discovered what is possibly my favorite book on music and emotions. The second, I decided to tackle in a second undergraduate dissertation, supervised by Dr Luke Windsor, by administring emotional intelligence questionnaires to musicians and non-musicians. Once again, the results were inconclusive, but it was a fun project, and the systematic review of the literature in the field put me in a good position to start thinking about how violations of predictions in music (and also in language) can lead to aesthetic experiences and emotions.

Music, language, the brain, aesthetics, emotions... If you're going to spend three years on it, you might as well pick something fun

In my PhD, I focused on the detection and processing of incongruities in music and language, the effects of musical training on language processing, and the role of incongruities in aesthetics. "Um, ok?" I hear you say. I was interested in the fact that music and language both seem to have the capacity for generating emotions by going against our expectations (think the key change in "All by myself" - yep, you know the one), and think of lyrics like "here I stand, six feet small" (John Mayer, 83). These both make us go "ooh" (or something along those lines) because they go against what we expect. The interesting thing is, researchers have also demonstrated similar patterns in the brain in response to unexpected chords or rhythms and words which are unexpected because of their meaning or because of the grammar of the sentence.

I pretty much packed all my main psychology interests into three years of research, making it a fascinating time, albeit with a few ups and downs. I had the privilege of being supervised by Dr Mitch Waterman and Dr Catriona Morrison , and of benefiting from some much needed ERP guidance from Dr Lucy MacGregor. I'm afraid we're still working on a few papers from this research, so I can't tell you too much about it (I'll add links to the papers once they're "out there"). This time we got some exciting results and it was a fun project. Win!