Evolutionary Cognition Lab

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Research Projects

The human face as an evolved signaling system 

Human faces convey information about identity, age, sex, health, fertility, etc. and movements of the face operate as complex social signals. We are running a number of projects investigating peopleĀ’'s sensitivity to these signals. 

One project currently underway is investigating non-verbal dynamic signaling in a variety of social contexts - the way people's facial movements communicate a wealth of subtle information to their social partners - as well as the brain mechanisms underlying such signaling.

Another line of investigation is to try to understand the evolution of attractiveness cues (especially those related to sexually dimorphic aspects of faces), and what they indicate about the owner of the face - do they reflect their underlying fertility and/or hormone levels, or do they better reflect their life history strategy, or some other biologically important attribute. And what role do the characteristics of the person making the judgement have - how are their perceptions of attractiveness affected by their hormones, or life history strategy, or other characteristics? 

We are also interested in the role of movement in conveying many of these signals - to what extent, for example, does facial movement help in recognising individuals, or in determining their attractiveness?

An evolutionary approach to Psychopathology/diversity

This project is examining various kinds of psychopathologies (depression, anxiety, obesity) and psychodiversities (Psychopathy, ASD, etc) from an evolutionary perspective. 

One project in this area is an examination Psychopathy as a potentially evolved social strategy, exploring the factors  in Psychopaths that enable them to act without care for others, as well as the factors that enable them to identify potential victims of their exploitation. 

Another line of investigation is taking a life history theory approach to examining the relationship between early life adversity and adult decision making, and how that might impact on a range of psychopathologies and overly risky/overly safe behaviours.  

 The evolution of perceptual sensitivities

This project is investigating how the perceptual environment a particular species inhabits (its perceptual ecology) determines its perceptual sensitivities, via shaping its neural apparatus. Consider, for example, how different the available information in the visual world of a bird is, given that it can easily gain a wide range of perspectives on a scene unavailable to a land-based perceiver like a human. Or consider the problem faced by a marine mammal, which evolved from a land-based animal (and so had a visual system adapted to terrestrial regularities), but which now must deal with a visual world in which many of those regularities no longer apply - under water you can't rely on objects having predictable viewpoints or velocities determined by their own locomotion, for example. 

We are also applying this logic to human perception - what can we understand about how people perceive the world (including illusions they fall for) by asking what a particular kind of perceptual sensitivity is actually for? An important part of this approach involves examining perceptual sensitivities from a Gibsonian ecological perspective, asking what information is available to the person for making important perceptual decisions, across a range of different perceptual modalities (visual and haptic, for example), and how that information is integrated across modalities. 

The evolution of spatial cognitive mechanisms

There is now a well established link between the ecology of a species and its performance on spatial tasks (although there is still some skepticism). For example, when a nectar-feeding bird visits a particular flower they usually empty it of nectar, so it is a bad place to go back to - at least until it has had time to refill. Consistent with this natural fluctuation, we have discovered that the tendency to avoid or return to previously rewarding locations is influenced by the amount of time between visits in Regent honeyeaters, despite the fact that the birds we used had never been exposed to natural flower replenishment rates. Similarly, we have found that Noisy miners, which feed  on both nectar and insects, also have a strong tendency to avoid a recently rewarding location - but only if the reward is nectar.

Similarly, can we understand the kind of spatial information humans are good and/or bad at using in terms of human evolutionary history? Has this resulted in males and females having slightly different spatial propensities? We have collected some data  which is at least consistent with the idea that human males and females might have brains that are adapted to process different kinds of spatial information, as a consequence of specialising on either hunting or gathering in our evolutionary past.