My research is multidisciplinary and combines psychology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience and ecology to study behaviour. I use a variety of techniques as part of my research, including behavioural observations, experiments, and agent-based modelling of neural and evolutionary processes. My work combines diverse approaches to provide an integrative understanding of behaviour.

NEWS: I’m organizing a free online symposium bringing researchers in bee cognition and agriculture together on September 8-9 2022. More details, including a link to register here: Bee Cognition and Agriculture Symposium

Attention-like process in insects

Insect brains are orders of magnitude smaller than primate brains. Yet they solve several of the same visual problems that primates do – often with smart, efficient solutions. One of the most important of these problems is that of selective attention – choosing one target and ignoring the distractors, something that is vital for foraging or avoiding predators. With funding from a BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship, Théo Robert and I are investigating how insects manage to do so by combining insights from neuroscience, psychology and ecology. The research will also investigate the role these attention-like processes play in pollination and in particular how pesticides might affect the sensory systems of pollinators. More details about the project here.

Pollinator welfare and responses to stress

Research in animal welfare has predominantly focussed on livestock mammals and birds. Approaches developed there have led to important ways of measuring cognitive and physiological indicators of welfare, especially in relation to emotion and mood in non-human animals. Apart from a handful of studies, these techniques have not been applied to invertebrates. Our research adapts techniques from vertebrates to the study of insect welfare. We are developing tools to assess and investigate the consequences of decreased welfare for pollinators and pollination. Along with Olga Procenko, we have begun by investigating cognitive biases and emotion-like states in bees and how stress affects different aspects of their behaviour. I am also collaborating on Beeing-Human, a Leverhulme Trust grant led by Prof Jennifer Richards at Newcastle University. On this grant, our interdisciplinary team across the sciences, arts and humanities, will be exploring new ways to look at emotion-like processes in insects and bringing out a new digital edition of The Feminine Monarchy, a 16th century book by Charles Butler on bee voices.

Stereo vision and prey detection in the praying mantis

(c) Newcastle University Pic: Mike Urwin

Praying mantises are the only invertebrates known to have stereo vision. In collaboration with Prof Jenny Read and Dr Ronny Rosner, my research investigates how they compute stereo vision and how their mechanisms of stereo vision differ from those seen in primates. This has shed light on how nervous systems evolve convergent solutions to similar problems. It could also lead to the development of novel mantis-inspired depth perception algorithms. You can read more about the project here.

The evolution of self-deception and overconfidence

Overconfidence is a cognitive bias that has been implicated in financial meltdowns, disasters and wars. It can clearly have serious and dangerous consequences. What then are the evolutionary advantages that enable it to persist? Robert Trivers proposed that self deception could have evolved to facilitate the deception of others if it eliminates signals (e.g. stress) that reveal deception. This would then give overconfident individuals a social advantage. Dr Shakti Lamba and I are developing an empirical research program testing this idea in humans and other species. Our first findings are published here.