Cognition and Brain Sciences

The Cognition and Brain Sciences Program is actively seeking new graduate students. If you are interested in applying, please explore this site, including our Tips for Getting into Graduate School in Research Oriented Psychology.

To see some of the UVic campus, check out this virtual tour. For information about Victoria and its many attractions, visit UVic's About Victoria webpage.

About the program

The Cognition and Brain Sciences Program faculty and graduate students share interests in a range of interconnected topics.

Our goal is to understand the nature of the representations and processes that give rise to mental events, and the influence of memory for past mental events on subsequent experience and behaviour.

We adopt a variety of empirical approaches to this enterprise, including naturalistic studies of children and adults, experiments conducted in laboratory contexts, brain imaging, case studies of brain-damaged patients, and computational modeling.

We are a closely integrated group, and we often work together on collaborative research enterprises. Every one of our faculty has an active, productive lab in which graduate students are conducting and publishing new research on current topics. Our faculty are major players in the world of cognitive and brain science, as indicated by their grants, journal editorships, leadership positions in large professional organizations, etc..


Our laboratory resources are growing by leaps and bounds. About 3 years ago we began conducting functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research at nearby Royal Jubilee Hospital, and 2 years ago we recruited Prof. Adam Krawitz, who has expertise with fMRI and teaches an fMRI methods course (and a computational modeling course).

For a different kind of brain imaging, two faculty members make extensive use of "brain waves" or event-related potentials (ERP). Jim Tanaka (famed for his research on visual expertise) uses ERP to study face perception. Clay Holroyd, recipient of a prestigious Canada Research Chair position, uses ERP to test models of the mechanisms underlying learning and cognitive control. Student involvement in ERP research has been so intense that we recently doubled our ERP facilities to meet the demand.

In other recent developments, Mike Masson acquired an eye-tracking system that yields real-time measures of what subjects are looking at moment to moment, and he and Daniel Bub got a 3-D kinematic tracking system that can measure (for example) the trajectory of a person’s hand reaching to grasp an object.

Our colleagues in Lifespan Development recently acquired a near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) set-up, which uses laser lights to measure activity in the outer part of the brain’s cortex. Thus the Cognition and Brain Sciences Program brings a wide range of tools to bear on the study of the brain/mind in action.

In short, our Cognition and Brain Sciences Program is hot, up-and-coming, dynamic, and growing. Our 14 current graduate students are superb. Our number-one priority at this time is to recruit additional first-rate graduate students (either into the Masters program or, for those who have earned a Masters degree elsewhere, directly into the PhD program).


UVic recently launched a Neuroscience degree program! That’s right, you could get a PhD in Neuroscience from UVic.

The program draws on strengths in several academic units at UVic, but the main players are the Department of Psychology (primarily our Cognition and Brain Science Program), the Department of Biology, and the Division of Medical Sciences. The latter two units have major strengths in cellular neuroscience, so students in the new program will get thorough grounding in both cellular and cognitive neuroscience.

You can check out the new program here. Faculty in Cognition and Brain Science can supervise graduate students in either Psychology or Neuroscience.

For further information about applying (including on line application forms), visit the Department's graduate admissions page.

Core faculty

Affiliated faculty

Other Psychology faculty with cognitive interests

Current graduate students

Program philosophy on coursework

Our graduate program emphasizes collaborative research activities more than coursework. Courses are viewed as important to the extent that they are likely to help the student succeed as a scholar. Consequently, we offer courses that we believe will be of direct relevance and value for our students' research, and the program is designed to permit a good deal of flexibility regarding how and when university coursework requirements are met.

Other relevant Psychology courses

Social cognition courses

There are a variety of courses in the domain of social cognition that may be of interest to CABS students (e.g., PSYC 521: Human Motivation; PSYC 523: Psychology and Law; PSYC 531: Environmental Psychology).

Neuropsych courses

  • PSYC 540 (History and Theory in Neuropsychology)
  • PSYC 541 (Research Design and Methods in Neuropsychology)
  • PSYC 543 (Human Neuroanatomy)
  • PSYC 548 (Special Topics in Neuropsychology)
  • PSYC 550 (Physiological Psychology: Introduction)
  • PSYC 551 (Neuropsychopharmacology)
  • PSYC 552 (Special Topics in Physiological Psychology)

Developmental courses

  • PSYC 562 (Infancy and Childhood)
  • PSYC 565 (Cognitive Development in Adulthood and Aging)
  • PSYC 571 (Developmental Psycholinguistics)

This is not a complete list, but serves to highlight the sorts of courses UVic offers that may be useful for students in the Cognition and Brain Sciences Program.

Coursework requirements for MA/MSc students

Students must satisfactorily complete at least 15 units, of which at least 12 units must be classified as graduate-level work (i.e., courses numbered 500 and above). A typical one-semester course meeting for 3 hours per week is worth 1.5 units. The program must include the following:

At least 1.5 units of PSYC 502 (Research Apprenticeship, which consists of doing research with collaborative supervision by your adviser and/or another faculty member; usually our students do more than 1.5 units of this [max = 4.5 units per year]).

At least 1.5 units of PSYC 504 (Individual Study, which is essentially a more advanced version of 502 -- that is, doing research with collaborative supervision by your adviser and/or another faculty member; usually our students do more than 1.5 units of this [max = 6 units per year]).

At least 3.0 units of approved statistics courses. Typically these are selected from the following:

  • PSYC 513: Quantitative Analysis
  • PSYC 517: Research Methods in Psychology
  • PSYC 532: Applied Multiple Regression
  • PSYC 533: Applied Multivariate Analysis
  • PSYC 534: Univariate Design and Analysis
  • PSYC 561: Theories and Methods in Lifespan Development
  • PSYC 564: Statistical Methods in Lifespan Development

The important thing is to take the statistics classes that will give you the tools you need to do the research you want to do.

  • 3.0 units of 576A, B, C, or D.
  • Registration in PSYC 577 each year.

At least 3.0 units of PSYC 599 (Thesis), including successfully defending a Master's thesis. (Our students typically earn 6.0 units for PSYC 599.)

Students whose undergraduate background is judged to be incomplete may also be required to demonstrate competence (e.g., by succeeding in an appropriate course or passing an exam) in certain areas of psychology; this would be negotiated when an offer of admission is made.

Students are to consult with their supervisor regarding which courses (within the general requirements described above) they should take to complete their requirements.

For other information, please see Description of Graduate Program Regulations.

Coursework requirements for PhD students

Students must satisfactorily complete at least 30 units of post-Master's coursework. Of the last 15 units of coursework for the Doctoral degree, not more than 6 units may be derived from undergraduate courses (i.e., all or most must be graduate-level courses). A typical one-semester course meeting for 3 hours per week is worth 1.5 units. The program must include the following:

  • At least 1.5 units of PSYC 602 (Independent Research; max 6.0 units per year)
  • At least 1.5 units of PSYC 604 (Individual Study; max 6.0 units per year)
  • At least 1.5 units of PSYC 576A, B, C, or D.
  • Registration in PSYC 577 each year.
  • At least 3.0 units of approved statistics and/or research methods courses. Statistics courses include those listed under the Master's requirements. Methods classes of particular relevance to CABS students include PSYC 574A (EEG/ERP), PSYC 574B (fMRI), and PSYC 574C (Computational Modeling).
  • At least 15.0 units of PSYC 699 (Dissertation), including successfully defending a Doctoral dissertation. (Max = 30 units, typically across 2 or 3 years.)

Students are to consult with their supervisor regarding which courses (within the general requirements described above) they should take to complete their requirements.

Financial support for graduate students

Faculty in the Cognition and Brain Science Program are committed to fully supporting our graduate students through various funding sources including research fellowships, teaching stipends, and scholarships. Each student is guaranteed a minimum of $16,500/year; most students get more than this.

This level of funding is sufficient for a person to get by in Victoria (even after paying tuition). The sources of this support will vary from student to student and from year to year. Those sources include (a) research assistantships (typically, this consists of getting paid to do cool research with your supervisor), (b) teaching assistantships (typically limited to no more than 10 hours per week, starting at about $20/hour), and (c) scholarships. These sources of support can often be combined to produce income over the $16,500 minimum (although there are certain limitations on how funds can be combined).

Students with major postgraduate scholarship and fellowships also receive a $4,000 top-up from UVic (for NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR scholarships; $2,000 top-up for some other major scholarships). For example, a student with a $17,500 Canadian Graduate Scholarship C from NSERC would get an additional $4,000 from UVic (roughly equivalent to having tuition paid). It's often possible for students with such scholarships to further supplement their incomes by working as Teaching Assistants.

Faculty in the Cognition and Brain Sciences Program provide grad students with workspace and basic work tools. We also often cover part of the costs of attending conferences at which the student presents or co-authors present research (and UVic's Faculty of Graduate Studies provides up to $600/year to support conference travel).

Cognition and action

When you hear a sentence describing someone interacting with an object or simply read a word that is the name of some object that you can manipulate with your hand, parts of the brain responsible for motor planning and actions become active.

Professors Daniel Bub and Michael Masson are examining the nature of hand action representations that become active when processing language or viewing objects that are associated with hand actions. They are particularly interested in the role that these motor-based representations play in understanding language or enabling efficient identification of objects.

They are also measuring subtle aspects of actual reach and grasp actions and the way in which these actions are influenced by context and prior experience. By using motion-monitoring equipment, they are able to detect very small differences in hand shape and trajectory that can reveal important changes in brain states that govern the interface between cognition and action.

Reinforcement learning, errors and decision making

You know that feeling you get when you are about to do something risky? Or the feeling when you realize that something you just did wasn't optimal?

Maybe you gambled some money you couldn’t afford to lose, or you threw a dirty look at some scary-looking thug and almost immediately you just KNEW that it wasn't the best thing to do. These examples suggest the importance of both predicting and evaluating outcomes in learning and decision making.

Reinforcement learning provides a powerful computational framework for understanding these processes in the mind and brain.According to this view, our choices are guided by the prediction of expected outcomes, followed by an evaluation of the difference between those predictions and the actual reward or punishment we experience (i.e. prediction errors). Recent research suggests a central role for the dopamine system (including the substantia nigra, basal ganglia, anterior cingulate, and related brain areas) in implementing reinforcement learning in the human brain. Clay Holroyd, Adam Krawitz, and their co-workers combine studies of event-related potentials and functional MRI with computational modeling and more traditional behavioural studies to develop and test theories of how reinforcement learning guides decision making and action selection.

Cognitive Control and Working Memory

Some behaviors are instinctual and stimulus driven – if someone throws a ball at your face, you will put your hands up and duck down in an instant. Some behaviors are so well learned they require nary a thought – you can walk down the street without focusing on how to place each foot in front of the other.

But many of our most interesting and uniquely human behaviors require active attention and control, particularly as we are first learning them – say, baking chocolate-chip cookies. These goal-driven activities require top-down processes, cognitive control, to overcome our impulses – why not just eat the batter? – and the maintenance and updating of temporary information, working memory, to track our progress – better remember you’ve added the butter, but not the flour.

Brain areas that are centrally involved in these processes include the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate. Clay Holroyd, Adam Krawitz, and colleagues apply converging methods, including event-related potentials, functional brain-imaging, computational modeling, and behavioral experimentation, to understand the mental and neural bases of cognitive control and working memory. One central issue they are addressing is understanding how we learn when to apply control, with reinforcement learning playing an important role. A second central issue is explaining how these control systems interact with other systems in the brain, including the medial-temporal lobe system for spatial processing, and the limbic system for emotion.

In related work, Michael Masson is examining episodic influences on cognitive control, and more specifically how recent experiences change the efficiency of switching from performing one skilled task to another. Mike uses behavioural methods and tracking of eye movements during task performance to undercover the cognitive mechanisms that enable or interfere with smooth task transitions.

From visual input to meaning

When you look at an object (e.g., a coffee cup), a two-dimensional pattern of light falls on your retinas (the sensory surface inside your eyes). Almost instantly, you perceive the object and can access a wide variety of kinds of knowledge about it (what it's called, what it's used for, what it feels like and how heavy it is, etc.).

How do you do this? How are the various kinds of knowledge linked together? How and why does the system sometimes break down?

Anchored chiefly by Prof. Daniel Bub, several faculty and graduate students at UVic apply cognitive and neuroscience approaches to study object recognition and face perception in healthy individuals and in special populations such as agnosics, alexics, and children with Asperger's syndrome.

Visual expertise

To most of us, a rose is a rose is a rose, but to a keen horticulturalist it may be a Double Blush Burnet Spinosissima.

Research by Prof. Jim Tanaka reveals that experts in a domain differ from novices not only in how they name objects within that domain, but also in how they see them. For example, one line of studies discovered differences in visual processing between bird-watching afficionados and people who aren't bird experts when viewing pictures of birds. Jim's research on visual expertise combines Event-Related Potentials (ERPs), behavioural measures, computational modeling.

A particularly interesting domain in which Jim has studied visual expertise is face perception. Most people are "face-perception experts," but children diagnosed with autism or Asperger's syndrome may not develop expertise in face perception. Jim and his students and colleagues are working on programs designed to help such children improve their face-perceiving expertise.

Memory in action: basic theory

Most people think of memory as being akin to a library or storehouse, in which a record of each past experience is filed in a discrete little package, and of remembering as a matter of locating and playing back the appropriate record.

Cognitive psychologists know that memory is much more than, and much different from, such a storehouse. For one thing, virtually every aspect of human behaviour and experience (from ice skating to getting a joke to solving a math problem to enjoying a piece of music) relies on and reflects the use of memory. For another, people are often influenced by memories of particular past episodes without being consciously aware of remembering (as in cases of involuntary plagiarism), and they sometimes have the subjective experience of remembering past episodes that they never in fact experienced (as in deja vu or various false memory phenomena).

Much of the research conducted by Profs. Mike Masson and Steve Lindsay and their students and collaborators focuses on understanding how memory (both with and without awareness) works.

Memory in action: applied domains

In the past decade, memory has emerged as perhaps the most controversially relevant area of cognitive psychology.

As one example, the debate about recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse created a huge stir in the popular media as well as in professional psychology, and Steve Lindsay and Don Read have been actively engaged in that controversy since the early 1990s. As another example, the development of DNA testing has led to the realization that false convictions occur frighteningly frequently (e.g., the US National Institute of Justice estimates that as many as 10% of the hundreds of thousands of inmates in US jails are innocent of the charges for which they were imprisoned), and faulty eyewitness identification evidence appears to play a huge role in false convictions.

Don Read is one of Canada's foremost researchers in the area of eyewitness identification, and in recent years he and Steve Lindsay have been collaborating on research on that topic (see also Affiliated Member Elizabeth Brimacombe). At a more general level, perhaps the broadest application of the study of memory is research on autobiographical memory (i.e., individuals' reminiscences and beliefs about their own personal histories), and this too is another active research area in Steve's lab at UVic.

Cognitive development

You started out as a baby, now you're an adult. How'd you do that?

Babies are more cognitively skilled than once was thought, but breathtakingly huge developments in cognitive complexity and sophistication are accomplished between birth and adulthood.

Chris Lalonde is particularly interested in developmental changes in children's ability to think about their own and others' mental states and beliefs (including beliefs about their own self identities). Although development is not his focus, Steve Lindsay occasionally collaborates on research on children's ability to differentiate between mental experiences with different sources (e.g., between memories and fantasies, or memories of an actual experience vs. memories of what someone else said about that experience).

Graduate students in the Cognition and Brain Sciences Program are provided with one or more computers for their work. The University also offers a number of up-to-date facilities and services for computing. We provide licences for major statistical packages (e.g., SPSS and Systat). Programming languages and other specialized software (e.g., MATLAB, Visual Basic, E-Prime) are also available in individual faculty labs.

As noted above, the Cognition and Brain Sciences group uses a wide variety of methods, including electroencephalography (“brain waves”), MRI, eye tracking, kinematic tracking, and computational modeling. Through collaborations, several of our faculty also draw on other methods such as endocrinology (e.g., stress hormones) and genetic analyses.

Research methods

Our primary research method involves the use of experimental designs to test hypothesis. Many of our studies involve computer-controlled presentations of visual and/or auditory stimuli and electronic measures of responses (e.g., key press, voice key, eye movements, measurement of brain activity).

But our methods are not narrowly restricted to highly controlled laboratory experiments. For example, Daniel Bub's research often involves exploratory observational work (as well as formal experiments) with individuals who have suffered various kinds of brain damage.

Due to his interest in reading, Mike Masson has studied the comprehension of civil laws written in traditional "legalese" versus "plain language" forms.

Don Read (with former UVic graduate student Deborah Connolly, now an Associate Professor at Simon Fraser University) is studying legal archives of cases involving delayed accusations of childhood sexual abuse. Ron Skelton and Kimberley Kerns use modified video games to study spatial cognition and prospective memory.

Don Read and Steve Lindsay have used survey methods to explore adults' recollections of long-past autobiographical events.

Clay Holroyd, Adam Krawitz, and Mike Masson use computer simulations to articulate and refine theoretical models (computational cognitive neuroscience).

As experimental psychologists, we are committed to the idea that experiments are the most compelling way to test hypotheses, but we also believe that observational and correlational research can play key roles in helping to understand psychological phenomena and in formulating hypotheses for subsequent experimental tests.

Basic research facilities

Each faculty member in the Cognition and Brain Science Program has a microcomputer-based laboratory for data collection, data analysis, and computational modeling. In addition, the group collectively holds a variety of other specialized equipment and software (e.g., state-of-the-art eye tracking and 3-D kinematics). We also have connections with medical facilities that provide opportunities for research with neurological cases.

Graduate students in the program are provided with office space and shared access to laboratory facilities. To the extent that funds allow, graduate students receive support for attending conferences for presentations of their collaborative research with faculty.

Brain imaging

Jim Tanaka
Jim Tanaka having his brain waves recorded.

We have a thriving Brain and Cognition Laboratory, which features two state-of-the-art ERP systems in electromagnetically shielded, sound-attenuated, temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms, as well as sophisticated software for creating, manipulating, and presenting visual stimuli. We will soon be dramatically expanding our ERP capabilities.

Moreover, we have achieved a long-standing ambition to bring functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to the Victoria area; we are now using this amazing technology to scan living, working brains at a hospital less than 4 k from UVic. We just hired Assistant Professor Adam Krawitz, who recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship that included extensive fMRI work (under the supervision of Joshua Brown at Indiana University).

Statistical expertise and resources

Our group has substantial statistical/quantitative sophistication. In particular, Clay Holroyd, Adam Krawitz, and Mike Masson all have advanced quantitative skills, and Tony Marley is a mathematical psychologist.

Graduate students in the Cognition and Brain Sciences Program are provided with one or more computers for their work. The University also offers a number of up-to-date facilities and services for computing. We provide licences for major statistical packages (e.g., SPSS and Systat). Programming languages and other specialized software (e.g., MATLAB, Visual Basic, E-Prime) are also available in individual faculty labs.