The Body in the Mind: Exploring Perceptual Self-Representations  

Fully funded PhD studentship
School of Psychology, Bangor University
Closing date: March 1st 2020

Dr Lara Maister

Applications are invited for a PhD studentship within the School of Psychology, Bangor University. Funding is available for three years. The studentship will commence from September 2020. It includes a payment of tuition fees, a maintenance allowance (approximately £15,009 p.a. for 2020/21) for full-time students, updated each year, as well as a generous research allowance per annum.

Project rationale and description:

The project will be concerned with bodily self-representation. Depending on the candidate’s interests and expertise, the project could more specifically focus on one of two potential topics, summarised below. The first focusses on our bodily self ‘from the outside’, by investigating our representations of our own physical appearance, and the second focusses on the bodily self ‘from the inside’, investigating interoceptive bodily awareness in young infants.

1) Self-Portraits: Visualising the Bodily Self-Representation

For many centuries, humanity has had a deep fascination with the way in which people depict themselves, as evidenced by the long-running practice of creating self-portraits. Intriguingly, self-portraits have long been understood to be not only a representation of the actual physical appearance of the artist, but also an exploration of the artist’s identity, emotions, and beliefs. How we see ourselves “in our mind’s eye” may therefore give us a unique glimpse into the complex, multidimensional nature of the self-representation. In recent research, using a data-driven reverse correlation technique, we were able to produce unconstrained, richly detailed visualisations of physical self-representations, reflecting participants’ mental pictures of their own facial appearance. These personalised “self-portraits” provide us with a unique glimpse into the structure of self-representation. This project will continue this line of research, and has three core aims. First, it will explore and develop new ways of visualising the physical self-representation in more detail, using reverse correlation and 3D facial image reconstruction techniques. Second, it will use these personalised visualisations to investigate the structure of the self, using both behavioural and neuroscientific methods (including EEG and fMRI). Finally, it could investigate individual differences in self-portraits in terms of their accuracy and patterns of distortion, and potentially tie these in with disorders of selfhood (e.g. body dysmorphia, depersonalisation).

2) Baby-beats: Cardiac interoception in infancy

Interoception, the sensitivity to visceral sensations, plays an important role in homeostasis and guiding motivated behaviour in adults. It is also considered to be fundamental to bodily self-awareness, and emotional experience. Despite its importance, the developmental origins of interoceptive sensitivity remain a mystery. In previous work, we developed a novel task for measuring infants’ sensitivity to their own cardiac sensations, and provided the first evidence for implicit, flexible interoceptive sensitivity in 5 month old infants, both from behavioural data and EEG recordings. This has now paved the way for further exciting investigation into the hitherto unknown roles and functions of interoception in development. This project will explore its developmental trajectory throughout infancy, how and why it fluctuates moment to moment, and what role individual differences in interoception play in the typical and atypical development of self-regulation, self-awareness and socio-emotional abilities. It will use a combination of behavioural eye-tracking paradigms, physiological recordings, and EEG approaches with infants between 2 and 12 months of age.

Supervisor: Dr Lara Maister

My research explores self-representation, self-awareness and embodiment. My recent work has focussed on the representation of our own bodies, from two complementary perspectives; first, from the outside, in terms of our physical appearance, and second, from the inside, in terms of our interoceptive sensitivity to internal bodily sensations. An important aspect of my work is to understand how the self is represented in relation to others, and how this determines the way we ‘share’ the embodied experiences of others, such as during empathy for pain, motor mimicry or emotional contagion. I am also interested in how our bodily self-representations interact with more abstract, conceptual self-beliefs to provide a rich, multimodal and coherent experience of the self.

Requirements:

Essential requirements:

  • First or upper second class degree in psychology, neuroscience or a cognate subject.
  • Strong scientific writing skills
  • Excellent analytical skills, with experience of statistical software packages (e.g. SPSS, R)
  • Strong interest in the proposed project topic(s)
  • Highly motivated and creative
  • Organised, independent and with excellent time-management skills

Desirable qualities:

  • A Masters level qualification in psychology, neuroscience or a cognate subject.
  • Experience with human neuroscience techniques (particularly fMRI and/or EEG)
  • Computer Programming experience (e.g. with psychological stimulus presentation packages within Matlab, ePrime or Presentation)
  • Experience with psychophysiological measurements, including cardiac measurement (for Project Topic 2)
  •  Experience with conducting research with infants (for Project Topic 2)

Facilities:

The successful candidate will be a member of the thriving Social Neuroscience and Cognition research group within the School of Psychology. This group meets regularly to present and discuss planned and on-going projects as well as important developments in the field. More widely, the School benefits from an excellent research environment, with a large community of PhD students and research-active faculty, regular lab meetings, seminars, and visiting speakers, and extensive facilities for behavioural and neuroscientific studies, including a brand-new research-dedicated 3T MRI centre, associated TMS suite and EEG laboratory.

Bangor’s School of Psychology was established in 1963 and now has one of the largest student cohorts in the UK and a cosmopolitan feel due to the presence of staff and students from over 20 countries. It has consistently performed exceptionally well in the UK’s annual National Student Survey (4th in NSS 2016), has recently received the highest possible rating under the Teaching Excellence Framework (2016), and is currently ranked in the UK’s top 20 for research activity (2014 Research Excellence Framework assessment).

Bangor University is situated among the breathtaking landscape of North Wales.  Bangor is a friendly and affordable university city, perched on the Irish Sea and with its back against Snowdonia National Park. There is easy access to beautiful mountains, lakes, rivers and beaches, while maintaining good transport links to some of the U.K.’s larger cities, including Manchester and London.

How to apply:

All application must be received through our online application system: https://apps.bangor.ac.uk/applicant/
Applications must contain the following documents:

  • Covering letter: This must include a statement explaining your motivation for applying for this studentship, your aspirations beyond completing a PhD, and why you believe your skills and experience would make you well-suited for the position. This should be a maximum of 2 pages in length.
  • References: All applications require two academic references to be submitted in support. Candidates must approach referees themselves and include the references with their application.
  • Curriculum Vitae: This should be no longer than two pages. Where appropriate, this should also include proof of English Language Competency (7.0 IELTS minimum).
  • Research Proposal: This should be between 3 and 4 pages in length (12pt, double-line spaced). It should broadly refer to either one of the two possible projects above, but there is scope for flexibility so it can include alternative related ideas. It must contain (i) your reflections on the aims and purpose of the research, and what aspects particularly interest you; (ii) your proposals for specific research questions, developing the designs and methods of the project; (iii) your ideas with regards to potential results, and their impact on our understanding; and (iv) potential follow-up studies. See the following webpage for guidance on how to prepare a proposal: https://www.bangor.ac.uk/pgapplied/proposal-advice.php.en)

General information

All PhD students are expected to contribute to teaching in the department. The initial appointment for the position will be for a period of one year, with an extension of 2 years after positive evaluation of capabilities and compatibility. The appointment must lead to the completion of a PhD thesis. There may be some flexibility with regards to start date.

Informal enquiries regarding the project should be directed to: l.maister@bangor.ac.uk.