The School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Science brings together an exceptional array of research expertise across these three subject areas.
In collaboration with industries, museums and public bodies, our research has shaped the debate on clinical guidelines in psychology, fostered understanding about the nature and evolution of language, and enhanced public understanding of the human and natural world, among many other contributions to society.
PPLS submitted to the Research Excellence Framework 2021 assessment exercise, as part of a University of Edinburgh-wide submission. Undertaken by the four UK higher education funding bodies, the aim of the exercise is to secure the continuation of a world-class, dynamic and responsive research base across the full academic spectrum within UK higher education.
Occurring approximately every seven years, for the 2021 REF, UK higher education institutions made submissions covering up to 34 subject-based units of assessment (UoAs)*. Here, the quality and standard of academic outputs (journal papers, monographs etc.), the environment supporting research activity, and the impact of research outside academia are assessed and rated by expert panels.
The breadth and excellent quality of PPLS’s research have been clearly demonstrated in the eight impact case studies (identified below) that formed part of the School’s submission and exemplified how the work of our academics and researchers has brought a multitude of benefits to a diverse range of stakeholders – both within the UK and internationally.
Duncan Pritchard, Lani Watson
Intellectual virtues are traits that characterise good thinkers and learners, such as curiosity, open-mindedness, and rigour. PPLS research investigates how best to cultivate the intellectual virtues in an educational setting, and has applied this to prisons, cultural organisations, and in the private sector.
Impacts of the research include influencing the education service of the Scottish Prison Service; facilitating organisational change (in relation to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, amongst others); and developing a commercial product to support professional development and organisational improvement (Success Methods).
Matthew Chrisman, Andy Clark, Allan Hazlett, Michela Massimi, Duncan Pritchard, Alasdair Richmond
Questions about the nature of morality, truth, and science are of huge importance to audiences across the world, but differences in educational opportunity mean that not everyone can engage with these questions in a critical manner. Research spanning the Philosophy department led to the creation of 2 Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Introduction to Philosophy and Philosophy and the Sciences.
These MOOCs improved access to current philosophical ideas for diverse learners (568,392 enrolments from 184 sovereign states); changed learners’ perspectives and goals; increased learners’ understanding of philosophical research at Edinburgh; changed teaching resources in a range of international settings (50,108 non-HEI teachers used, or planned to use, the MOOCs for education purposes); and informed other online learning initiatives globally.
Andy Clark, Dory Scaltsas, Mark Sprevak
One of the greatest scientific challenges today is to uncover the physical mechanisms responsible for human thought and feeling. Distributed cognition holds that those mechanisms do not always lie inside the brain; sometimes they include processes in the body, environment, and in technological tools such as smartphones. PPLS researchers have defended this idea and explored its consequences for wider society.
This research has influenced industrial product design, as demonstrated by testimony of industrial researchers at Google and CyborgNest; influenced cultural organisations and artistic practitioners, as demonstrated by commissioning of a new EUR2.5M Museum of Ideas in Athens and dedicated exhibitions around the world; and changed public discourse on human–technology relationships, as demonstrated by engagement within mainstream media, user-generated blogs, and with professional journalists.
Philosophy of the Extended Mind Exhibited in Contemporary Art (Video on YouTube)
Sharon Abrahams, Thomas Bak
Edinburgh neuro-psychology research characterised a specific profile of cognitive and behavioural changes in patients with motor neurone disease (MND), and based on this developed a bespoke assessment tool, the Edinburgh Cognitive and Behavioural amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) Screen (ECAS). Patients benefit from such cognitive assessments as this enables clinicians to tailor subsequent care to their specific needs.
Some 600 MND healthcare professionals from 16 countries have been trained and certified to administer the ECAS (which has been standardised across 22 languages). A cognitive assessment using the ECAS is now routinely carried out with all new MND diagnoses in Scotland, at 21 of 22 MND centres across the UK (June 2018 data) and at 45 MND services in 25 countries across the world.
Professor Sharon Abrahams (Video on YouTube)
Holly Branigan, Martin Pickering
Edinburgh neuro-psychology researchers developed the psychological theory of Interactive Alignment, which states that during dialogue, speakers spontaneously converge on the same words and grammar (i.e. “align” their language). This leads to alignment of their representations of the situation and underlies mutual understanding, whether speakers are using their native language or a second language.
Based on the theory, the Continuation Task was developed for teaching English as a second language in China and is now in widespread use in middle schools and universities in at least 8 provinces, reaching more than 3,000,000 students. Since 2016 the Continuation Task has formed part of the key national university entrance exam (taken by 600,000 students each year), is used in a standard textbook bought by 26 universities, and has been recognised in 2 prestigious teaching awards.
Linguistics & English Language
Christine Cuskley, Simon Kirby, Monica Tamariz
Kirby’s research on language evolution has led to creation of new artworks. In collaboration with Kirby, performance artist Hanna Tuulikki, and sound artists Tommy Perman and Rob St John drew directly on Kirby’s research on iterated learning and cultural evolution to inform their artistic practice, and develop new material.
Kirby’s research has continued to help shape these artists’ practice in solo works: for example, St John’s art-geography installation with Tate Modern explores the relationship between language and landscape, and Tuulikki’s Deer Dancer exhibition explores the evolution of culture, gender performance, and iconicity (the correspondence between form and meaning).
Sing the Gloaming - Linguistic Evolution of Phonaesthemes Influences Music (Video on YouTube)
Simon King, Junichi Yamagishi
Research on personalised speech synthesis has led to improved quality of life and commercial impact. A new spin-out company (SpeakUnique Ltd, attracting over GBP510,000 investment), established in collaboration with clinicians, provides personalised synthetic voices for users even when their speech is already degraded (e.g. as a result of motor neuron disease). As well improving as the quality of life of people who have lost their voice, the research has led to new legislation guaranteeing access to communication support for all patients suffering voice loss. King’s research has also underpinned commercial products and services offered by leading technology companies.
Antonella Sorace, Thomas Bak
A centre dedicated to research and engagement on multilingualism, Bilingualism Matters (BM) has had impact in three main areas:
- Public discourse: BM shaped the way multilingualism is presented and discussed through its significant engagement with the media, arts, and targeted events for parents and teachers in the UK; internationally, it established a model for public engagement via its 25 centres across Europe, Asia and North America.
- Business: BM led to the creation of an award-winning social enterprise teaching languages to older people and dementia patients; BM drove the redevelopment of an English-language assessment tool for Pearson English.
- Language policy in Scotland: BM informed the implementation of government strategy for language learning in Scottish schools; BM also highlighted the importance of supporting home languages in the Scottish Government’s strategy for integrating refugees.
*As part of the wider University of Edinburgh 2021 REF submission, PPLS submitted (either singularly, or in conjunction with other schools) to three units of assessment.