A quick career biography:

I graduated from Sussex University in 1981 with a degree in Experimental Psychology. I went to Edinburgh where I did a PhD in Artificial Intelligence. I spent four years ('84-'88) working as a postdoctoral researcher on a project with about 15 other people trying to build a computer that would be able to recognize normal speech. It didn't. I left in 1988 to rejoin the Laboratory of Experimental Psychology at Sussex (now the Department of Psychology), this time as a lecturer, and came to York in 1996. But it’s not over yet... In August 2014 I move my lab to the University of Connecticut (that’s in the USA...).

What I work on

I work on the psychology of language (and specifically, sentence processing), and how language comprehension is related to our ability to "understand" the things that happen around us. This is a topic that I've been interested in since my last year as an undergraduate. My history goes something like this: After graduating, I became interested in how we deal with ambiguity, and why the following perfectly grammatical sentences are problematic
After spending far too much time researching this kind of thing, I shifted topic (ever so slightly) and started working on how we establish, as we read or hear a sentence, 'who did what to whom' - that is, how we figure out the relationships between the different things mentioned in the sentence. In fact, that's not so different from what I was doing before, it's just that now I didn't have to study ambiguity, but could study unambiguous sentences also. If you're interested, you can read a series of quick summaries of most of my work by selecting the research menu item on the right. The summaries are very brief, and probably not entirely self-explanatory (though I’ve done my best).

In the mid-to-late 1990s I started to study language by monitoring eye movements; I study how we process what goes in through the ears by studying how that affects the eyes (and you can read about this also in the research section). I quickly became interested in how language can direct attention around the external world, and then became interested in how our perception of the external world might influence our interpretation of sentences that refer to that world. So just to give a flavour* of this otherwise uninterpretable description of what I do: it turns out that if you hear 'the boy will eat the cake', and simultaneously see a number of things, including a cake, you'll look at the cake during 'eat'. In fact, if you had previously seen the cake, but it's gone by the time you hear the sentence, you'd look during 'eat' to where the cake had been. After that, I started to explore how, if you see a scene with a cake on a shelf, and an empty table nearby, and you hear ‘the boy will move the cake onto the table, and then he’ll slice the cake’, you’ll look during the final ‘cake’ at where the table was - that is, towards the ‘mental location’ of the cake as described by the sentence, and not towards where you remembered actually seeing the cake. In fact, if you show a scene, and then give people a sentence to listen to that mentions objects in that scene, the eyes move around pretty much as if the scene were still there - surprisingly accurately and with a very similar (if not identical) time-course.

More recently, and motivated by the study in which the cake is moved to the table and then sliced, I started looking at how we represent the changes that objects undergo - that is, how we represent the cake before and after it was sliced (the prior eye movement work had focused on changes of location rather than changes of intrinsic state). It turns out that this isn’t so straightforward, because these two representations (the ‘before’ and the ‘after’) create a kind of conflict in the system. This work is super-hi-tech, using brain scanning techniques that are beyond my own expertise. Fortunately I have collaborators and students who enjoy this kind of thing. I actually believe that this latest work is the most important of my career - but time will tell!

I have occasionally worked on the acquisition of grammatical information, the use of neural networks to model that acquisition process, and the ways in which adult language processing is just a consequence of the ways in which we first learn about language as young infants.

To find out more...

To find out more about my research, teaching, current preoccupations (children, Oxford University Press marketing division, Coffee, etc. etc.), use the menu on the right.

*for our US cousins: flavour = flavor.