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Brain Connectivity Correlates of Level of Construal and Psychological Distance, across the Autism Spectrum and across Cultures, Genders, and Individuals

  • School: School of Social Sciences
  • Starting: 2023
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Fully-funded


Project ID: S3 5

Supported by findings in genetics and systems neuroscience, categorical classifications of neurodevelopmental disorders are being reframed as sets of dimensional variations that overlap one another and that exist throughout the general population. Understanding how these dimensional traits interact with each other and with the environment thus will lead not only to explanations of neurodevelopmental disorders but also to an understanding of human cognitive diversity more generally, and their mutual influences.

Autistic traits (Paul, Arora, et al., Molecular Autism, 2021) are characterised by low degrees of two linked capacities (Belmonte, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2020): level of construal, meaning the tendency to represent percepts as individual details rather than as whole contexts; and psychological distance, meaning the tendencies to perceive objects and events in distant rather than peri-personal space, to recall or to anticipate past or future time rather than the here-and-now, to approach social interactions in the allocentric frame of other people rather than one's own egocentric frame, and to represent hypothetical, counterfactual, or fictional beliefs that are at odds with actual facts. Situational manipulations priming level of construal influence psychological distance, and vice versa (Trope & Liberman, Psychological Review, 2010); these traits also are influenced by culture (Nisbett & Miyamoto, TICS, 2005) and by sex differences (Frank & al., NeuroImage, 2015). This project will combine neuroimaging of typical individuals with graph-theoretic analyses of information flow in addressing the hypothesis that all four of these axes – autistic, social situational, cultural, and sex differences in level of construal and psychological distance – bear on one and the same neurophysiological tuning, namely, the balance between bottom-up sensory input and top-down executive control. Depending on the student’s background and interests, data may come from high-density EEG and/or from functional MRI; the specific preprocessing differs but the underlying mathematics are similar. Opportunity exists for international and cross-cultural collaboration with St John’s National Academy of Health Sciences, Bangalore, which runs a 3T Siemens functional imaging facility and with which the PI has a longstanding relationship. The specifics of this project thus can be very much tailored to the student’s interests.

NTU offers a wide-ranging, collegial environment including experts in neurodevelopmental disorders and differences, language acquisition, motor control, perception, attention and cognition. The department occupies two buildings on a city-centre campus. Facilities include EEG (128-channel BioSemi), MRI/fMRI (1.5T Siemens Avanto), fNIRs, eye tracking (SR Research EyeLink 1000 and others), and TMS, all supported by full-time technical staff.

Supervisory Team:

Matthew Belmonte

Alex Sumich

Suvo Mitra

Entry qualifications

  • 1st class / 2:1 undergraduate degree, and / or equivalent
  • Completed masters level qualification and / or evidence of substantive published research works

How to apply

Please visit our how to apply page for a step-by-step guide and make an application and include the project ID in your application

Application deadline: Friday 16th June 2023.

Fees and funding

This is an NTU Studentship funded opportunity.

Guidance and support

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Matthew Belmonte