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Loneliness and its effects on vision and decision making

Project Description

Currently, the prevalence of loneliness is increasing in the UK. Loneliness is associated with depression and a subjective sense of social exclusion (Mental Health Foundation). The hallmark of this subjective feeling of exclusion is a difficulty in making eye contact. Successfully communicating individuals accurately decipher non-verbal cues such as ‘where’ others are looking (their direction of gaze) as an important cue for social interaction. Recently the Bahrami et al. showed that the gaze perception accuracy is predictive of self-reported level of loneliness. Moreover, the study showed that the individual variations in the accuracy of gaze perception and the loneliness level were both associated with variations in the same human brain structures. We wish to examine these associations in depth by determining the spatiotemporal aspects of gaze processing that are impaired in people suffering from loneliness and the knock on effects this may have for decision making. Specifically, we ask: does poor or inaccurate encoding of when others make eye contact exacerbate the sensation of loneliness and does this affect our ability to make informed decisions?

Methodology: We will employ psychophysical methods to test whether people who suffer from loneliness are poorer at encoding the spatiotemporal characteristics of social stimuli than people who do not report being lonely. We seek to identify the critical spatiotemporal characteristics of social cues, such as perceiving ‘when’ another person looks at you, that mediate the (apparent) impairment of social interaction and increased sensation of exclusion in loneliness. We will examine how this impaired spatiotemporal characteristics for gaze and social interactions impact perfromance on social and non social tasks.

The hosting institution will be Queen Mary University of London and the research will mainly be conducted there. Dr Bahador Bahrami, based at the institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, will collaborate on the project and there will be weekly meetings to track and update the results. The research facilities at QM (testing cubicles, eye tracker, EEG setup, developmental lab) available to Dr Mareschal and her team are outstanding. Moreover both Dr Mareschal and Dr Bahrami have strong ties to UCL psychology and participate in meetings and journal clubs held there.

Funding

Applications are welcomed from candidates applying for external funding. If no external funds are secured, students should be able to demonstrate that they can cover the cost of living expenses and tuition fees for a minimum of 3.5 years.

Eligibility and Applying

Applications are invited from outstanding candidates with or expecting to receive a first or upper-second class honours degree in an area relevant to the project. An masters degree is desirable.

Students from outside of the UK are required to meet our English languagre requirements.

Information on the application process can be found on this webpage.

References

  • Mareschal, I., Calder, A.J., & Clifford, C.W.G. (2013). Humans have an expectation that gaze is directed at them. Current Biology, Apr 22; 23(8):717-2
  • Mareschal, I., Calder, A.J., Dadds, M.R., & Clifford, C.W.G. (2013). Gaze categorization under uncertainty: psychophyiscs and modeling. Journal of Vision, 13, 1-10
  • Jun, Y.Y., Mareschal, I., Clifford, C.W.G., & Dadds, M.R. (2013). Cone of direct gaze is a marker of social anxiety in males. Psychiatry Research
  • Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Duchaine, B., Janik, A., Banissy, M., Rees, G. (2012) Brain structure links loneliness to social perception. Current Biology. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.045.
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