BAW pt 1: Laughter is the best medicine – Sophie Scott joins Real Scientists!

sophiescott bright clubFor our first Brain Awareness Week curator, we’re excited to welcome Sophie Scott (@sophiescott), Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL in London, UK. Sophie studies the neurobiology of speech perception and the evolution of speech. She’s interested in how we understand all kinds of information from the voice, including emotion, and she’s also done a lot of work on laughter.  We asked Sophie about her career path and interests, and you can read her responses below.

I really enjoyed science in school, did chemistry physics and biology at A level, then (via a slightly circuitous route) discovered psychology and went to study that as part of a life sciences degree. I loved this, and was encouraged to think of doing a PhD, which was the first point I’d ever thought of doing science for a living. I was extremely fortunate to be taken on for a PhD at UCL straight after my first degree, and I absolutely loved it. I studied rhythm in speech and it was such a great introduction to research, from phonetics to sound, from perception to production.

I still work in speech and I still work in sound, and I study this in the context of vocal communication. Our voices are incredibly complex social signals and it never stops being interesting – both in the techniques we get to use and the directions I work in. My PhD student Sophie Meekings has  been looking at how people who stammer changes their voices – and become more fluent – when they speak in synchrony with someone else, and that’s been fascinating – both in terms of how their fluency improves, and how their brain responds change with this – but also how they talk about their own voices and their experiences of stammering. I just want to know more!

My research investigates the neurobiology of human voices, from sounds to speech, from melody to laughter. I’m interested about why we sound the way we do, how we express ourselves and our language in our voices, and how other brains decode this. I want to understand the brain bases, and also what happens when other factors affect this – such as hearing loss or stroke. I’m also interested in plasticity in these systems – how do we cope with different talkers and accents, how to we adjust our own voices when we talk to other people? The human voice is the most complex single sound in nature, and we are rarely aware of this complexity – indeed, it’s often only when things go wrong that we’re aware of how hard it is to speak, and how much other people make assumeptions about us based on our voices and our use of spoken language. Talks is also still the dominant mode for social interactions, the world over, and this means that our voices are tools for commutation and also social tools.

I am deputy director of the ICN (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience), which can be very interesting! I also do a lot of public egagement work. I type to turn theory into practice and attempt stand up comedy in my spare time.

My ideal day off is probably a day at Blackpool Pleasure beach with my family, starting the day with a run along the prom (very early, just me) then a day at the pleasure beach chasing my into and off rides, and then fish and chips at Pablo’s. Ideally, I’d then see a excellent comedian at the Opera House. If I’m allowed complete free reign, let’s aim for Sarah Millican.

Please welcome Sophie to Real Scientists!

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