Thursday, December 15, 2011

Doctoral position in General Linguistics at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany

The Emmy Noether Research Group ''Neurolinguistic Foundations of Information Structure'' (funded by the German Research Foundation, DFG) headed by Petra Schumacher is seeking to fill the position of a doctoral researcher. Starting date: February 1, 2012 or soon thereafter. 
The doctoral position is part of a neurolinguistic project that investigates language comprehension at the interface of syntax, semantics and information structure ( The doctoral researcher will work within our group on a project that investigates referential processing in German. The project will either extend previous research with unimpaired comprehenders or investigate referential processing in aphasia patients. The primary experimental method employed will be event-related brain potentials. 
The ideal candidate should have a degree in linguistics or a related discipline. S/he should have a keen interest in experimental work, as well as in syntactic and pragmatic theory. Experience with event-related brain potentials and/or language impairment research will be a plus. Knowledge of German would be beneficial. The successful candidate will work towards a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Mainz on a topic related to the research group.
The position has an initial term for two years, with the possibility of extension contingent on future funding. The salary and social benefits are determined by the German pay scale for state employees (EG 13 TV-L 50%).
Interested candidates are invited to send their application materials electronically to Pdf files are preferred. Applications can be written in German or English and should include CV, contact information of at least two referees, and a brief statement of research interests.
Applications received by January 06, 2012 will receive full consideration, but the search continues until the position is filled.
For more information contact Petra B. Schumacher by email at

Monday, December 12, 2011

open-rank faculty position in Cognitive Neuroscience at Florida International University in Miami, FL

Position Title: Cognitive Neuroscience (Open-rank). We seek an outstanding researcher with expertise in fMRI, EEG, or TMS methodologies. Applicants with interest in developmental or adult cognitive neuroscience are encouraged to apply. Area of focus is open, but we especially welcome applicants with a focus on memory, language, executive function, or multisensory processing. Address inquiries to Dr. Bennett Schwartz, Chair, Neuroscience Search,

THE DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY AT FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY: seeks applicants for five faculty positions, to begin fall 2012, including open-rank positions in Behavior Analysis, Cognitive Neuroscience, Developmental Science, and Quantitative Methodology and an instructor level position in Research Methods. Successful candidates will join a growing department with nationally prominent programs and faculty. The Department offers Ph.D. programs in Child-Adolescent Clinical Science, Developmental Science, Industrial Organizational Psychology and Legal Psychology and M.S. programs in Behavior Analysis and Counseling Psychology. A Ph.D. in Psychology or related area is required for all positions. For open-rank positions, preference will be given to applicants with strong research credentials and demonstrated potential to obtain external funding. Interested candidates should send application materials to with the position title in the subject line. Include curriculum vitae, recent publications or reprints, contact information for three potential references, and a letter describing research interests. Review of applications will begin November 1 and continue until the positions are filled. For more information about the Department, visit our website: FIU is a member of the State University System of Florida, serving a diverse population of over 40,000 students, and is an Equal Opportunity/Equal Access/Affirmative Action Employer.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why autism has nothing to do with 'broken mirrors'

I've argued that the mirror neuron theory of action understanding is backwards.  Mirror neurons do not fire because they are critically involved in action understanding (the typical claim), they fire because perceiving an action is critically involved in selecting actions for movement (Hickok & Hauser, 2010).  This point has broad implications for any theory that builds on the mirror neuron theory of action understanding.  I've had plenty to say about the broader implications in the domain of speech (e.g., Hickok, 2009; Hickok, et al. 2011; Lotto, et al. 2009); now it's time to take a stab at the claims made beyond speech.

One of the most prominent and potentially important extrapolations of the mirror neuron theory of action understanding concern autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  The "broken mirrors" hypothesis of ASD, exemplified by a Scientific American article by V.S. Ramachandran, is built on the following logic.

1. The mirror system allows us to understand the action of others.
2. The mirror system, by extrapolation, allow us to understand the emotions, intentions, and perspectives of others.
3. ASD involves a lack of sensitivity to the emotions, intentions, and perspectives of others (in particular a lack of empathy).
4. Therefore ASD results from functional disruption to the mirror system, that is, from "broken mirrors".

Since I've argued that assumption #1 is false, the logic simply falls apart.  However, let me attack another of these assumptions, namely #3, that ASD involves a lack of sensitivity to emotion, etc.  I'm going to argue instead that ASD involves, in fact, hyper-sensitivity to emotional states, both their own and others.  This hypothesis is not new.  In fact, Henry Markram, Tania Rinaldi, and Kamila Markram proposed exactly this in their 2007 paper titled, The Intense World Syndrome -- An Alternative Hypothesis for Autism. I would just like to underline their perspective here.

An analogy is useful for seeing why hyper- rather than hypo-sensitivity makes more sense.  Imagine a person who is hypo-sensitive to sound.  Is such a person more or less likely to walk into very loud environments?  More likely!  If you are less sensitive to sound you might actually prefer loud environments because that's how you get your acoustic sensation to a normal level. Conversely, a person who is hyper-sensitive to sound is going to avoid loud environments because it hurts.

Now consider the same scenario translated to the social/emotional domain.  For starters let's agree that a large part of one's emotional stimulation comes from social situations.  Not all emotional stimulation comes from the social domain, to be sure: I can get pretty emotional when I can't figure out how to fix my leaky faucet.  But we get a lot more emotional and more often when a family member is sick or injured, or when a colleague rolls his or her eyes when we try to make a point, and so on. Now, imagine a person who is hyper-sensitive emotionally. Is such a person more or less likely to engage in social situations?  Less!  For someone who is hyper-sensitive to emotion, engaging in a normal social situation would be like walking into an excessively loud environment: it's uncomfortable and causes an avoidance response. ASD individuals may avoid social interaction not because they lack empathy but rather because social interaction is simply too stressful.

Some data:  A characteristic of autism is decreased gaze fixation, particularly on faces.  Correspondingly, the fusiform face area (FFA) appears to be less active in autistic individuals during face processing tasks.  This might be interpreted as social indifference, a lack of interest in faces.  However, another interpretation is that looking at faces, which are a major source of emotional information, is stressful for individuals who are hyper-sensitive to emotion.  An imaging study of face perception published by Dalton et al. in 2005 supports this view.  This study found that the autistic group did indeed spend less time fixating the eyes and that there was less activity overall in the FFA for the autistic than control group.  However, this is not all that surprising because if you spend less time looking at a stimulus, your brain activation in regions sensitive to that stimulus will naturally be lower.  And in fact, when Dalton et al. looked the correlation between FFA activity and gaze duration they found a strong and positive correlation in autistic subjects.  In other words, the FFA of autistic folks is working fine, it's just that they spend less time looking at the stimulus.  More importantly, they report that amygdala activity was strongly correlated with gaze duration in the autistic group but not in the control group.  Interpretation: looking at faces is more emotionally arousing in autistic than control individuals.

Hyper-sensitivity to emotion is perfectly consistent with the well-known sensory sensitivity noted in ASD.  In other words, there are other reasons to believe that hyper-sensitivity is a key feature of the syndrome across the board.

The mirror neuron folks got it perfectly backwards again.  You don't have to take my word for it though.  Here are some links to essays written by individuals with ASD or by a parent.  The links were provided by Morton Gernsbacher, an author on the study referred to above.  I found them particularly illuminating.


Dalton, K., Nacewicz, B., Johnstone, T., Schaefer, H., Gernsbacher, M., Goldsmith, H., Alexander, A., & Davidson, R. (2005). Gaze fixation and the neural circuitry of face processing in autism Nature Neuroscience DOI: 10.1038/nn1421

Hickok, G., Eight problems for the mirror neuron theory of action understanding in monkeys and humans. J Cogn Neurosci, 2009. 21(7): p. 1229-43.

Hickok, G. and M. Hauser, (Mis)understanding mirror neurons. Curr Biol, 2010. 20(14): p. R593-4.

Hickok, G., J. Houde, and F. Rong, Sensorimotor integration in speech processing: computational basis and neural organization. Neuron, 2011. 69(3): p. 407-22.

Lotto, A.J., G.S. Hickok, and L.L. Holt, Reflections on Mirror Neurons and Speech Perception. Trends Cogn Sci, 2009. 13: p. 110-114.

Lab Research Assistant position at UCSF Speech Neuroscience Lab

UCSF is a world-class research institution with a wide array of scanner facilities that includes MRI (both 3T and 7T systems) as well as a 275-channel whole-head MEG/EEG scanner. There is also an active program of research using intracranial ECoG recordings from epilepsy patients. Here at the Speech Neuroscience Lab, we make use of these technologies to investigate the neural basis of speech motor control. The research focus of the lab is investigating the neural basis of feedback processing in speech production, but other ongoing projects in the lab include studies of sequential speech production, as wells as studies of speech motor disorders like spasmodic dysphonia and stuttering.
We are looking for a research assistant to join our research group for a 1-2 year stint, with possibility of extension. Our ideal candidate is a recently graduated undergraduate engineering student who is interested in running human imaging and psychophysics experiments and also has reasonable programming skills in MATLAB.
Start date for the position would be as soon as possible
Those interested in applying should contact Prof. John F. Houde (

Friday, December 2, 2011

Post-doctoral position in Cognitive Neuroscience - Barcelona

Post-doctoral position in Cognitive Neuroscience
Applications are invited for a full-time post-doctoral research position in the
MULTISENSORY RESEARCH GROUP at the Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona).
The post is part of the BRAINGLOT project, a Research Network on Bilingualism and
Cognitive Neuroscience (Consolider-Ingenio 2010 Scheme, Spanish Ministry of
Science and Education).
The project brings together the efforts of several research groups spanning different
scientific disciplines with the common purpose of addressing the phenomenon of
bilingualism from an open and multidisciplinary perspective. The MRG attempts to
understand the use of multisensory cues (audiovisual) speech information in the
context of learning and using a second language. The project includes behavioral,
neuroimaging (fMRI, ERP) and, neurostimulation (TMS) approaches.
Job description
We seek a person who leads the electrophysiological aspects of the project
(ERP/EEG), including the development of independent scientific studies, as well as the
participation (i.e., supervision) in others. Involvement in some organizational and
management aspects is also expected.
Candidate requirements
- Previous experience in ERP/EEG recording and analysis is *indispensable*
- PhD
- Motivation about the question of multisensory integration and/or speech perception
- Background in cognitive neuroscience, neuroscience, and/or cognitive psychology
- Programming skills
* Applicants from outside the EU are welcome to apply but must qualify for a valid visa.
- Duration: The position will be funded and renewable for up to two years
- Starting date: As soon as possible
- Salary: 28000EUR/year
- Travel: The project may require some travel to conferences / meetings
How to apply
Applications should include:
- a C.V. including a list of publications
- the names of two referees who would willing to write letters of recommendation
- a brief cover letter describing research interests
For informal enquiries about the position and applications, please contact Salvador
Soto-Faraco. ( Applications will be
accepted until the position is filled.
Please, mention that you are applying to the POSTDOCTORAL position in the email