Speech and laughter research

Every month, The Physiological Society send an email with details of a senior physiology researcher.  This month it is Professor Sophie Scott, the Deputy Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Group Leader for the Speech Communication Neuroscience Group at University College London.  Even though she works in a completely different area to us, her research sounds really interesting and we thought you might like to read about it.  Professor Scott is also giving the Annual Public Lecture at the Physiology 2015 conference on the Science of Laughter on Monday 6 July at 6:30pm, which you can watch on the livestream and The Guardian’s website.

What is your research about?
I study the human brain, and the ways that it lets us communicate with each other, using our voices. I am interested in why we sound the way we do, how we have conversation and how we can decode information from other people’s voices – and I’m also interested in how this can go wrong!

How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do?
I really wanted to study the psychology of music when I was an undergraduate, and I’m still not entirely certain why that didn’t happen. In fact, the person on whose music psychology research I’d based my undergraduate project took me on to do a PhD, but his interests were more in speech by that time. I have no regrets – voices are amazing.

Why is your work important?
Humans voices – from speech to laughter – are at the centre of most of our social interactions, and being isolated from this can be devastating – both personally and in more clinical terms. When we talk to each other, we share information, but we also make and maintain social bonds, and we even regulate our emotions this way. I can’t think of anything more interesting!

Do you think your work can make a difference?
I hope so. Work from my lab has made a difference to how we conceptualise the processing of speech and voices in the brain, and I have been at the forefront of the push to try and situate vocal communication within the realm of social neuroscience. I’m also one of a handful of scientists trying to take laughter seriously – and I think we might manage to do this!

What does a typical day involve?
Writing, lab meetings, planning studies, discussing data, discussing papers. Without exception, what I enjoy most of all is planning studies and looking at data. I also travel quite a lot, to give talks and go to conferences.

What do you enjoy most in your job?
I always enjoy looking at data. “The pleasure of finding things out” as Feynman put it. One of my post-docs, Saloni Krishnan, has nearly finished a study looking at differences between beatboxers, electric guitar players, and non-expert controls when they listen to music and sounds. The results are so exciting that I can’t stop thinking about them! I literally want to tell everyone, and is so exciting when data really start to make you think.

What do you enjoy the least?

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…
I have a secret life doing science-based stand-up comedy. Well, not very secret if you know me, as I bang on about it a lot.

What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?
Take the time to find the stuff you really enjoyed studying – it’s your life and your research career, so you should allow yourself to focus on what really grabs your interest. Also, there are lots of different ways of being a scientist and conducting research, so try and spend time in different places and lab and see what styles work for you. Never be afraid to make contact with people and ask to visit their labs – in my experience scientists are very open and inclusive. Also, life is too short to collaborate with people you don’t get on with. Collaborations are brilliant, and you should enjoy them, not suffer through them.

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