We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Department of Psychology


Perceptual Priors Revealed by Iterated Reproduction.

10th March 2017, 16:00 to 17:00, L47, Dr. Nori Jacoby, Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience, Columbia University, NYC.

Probability distributions over external states (priors) are essential to the interpretation of sensory signals. In many areas of perception and cognition, humans appear to combine current observations with internal beliefs about the environment (the prior) in a process approximating statistical inference. Priors for cultural artifacts such as music and language remain largely uncharacterized, but critically constrain cultural transmission, because only those signals with high probability under the prior can be reliably reproduced and communicated.

Extending previous research on iterated learning, we developed a method to estimate priors for rhythm via iterated reproduction of random temporal sequences. Listeners were asked to reproduce random “seed” rhythms; their reproductions were fed back as the stimulus, and over time became dominated by internal biases, such that the prior could be estimated by applying the procedure multiple times. We measured priors on simple rhythms in residents of the United States as well as members of the Tsimané, an Amazonian society with very limited exposure to Western music. We found that priors in US participants showed peaks at rhythms whose time intervals were related by small integer ratios. The modes of the prior were limited to small integer rhythms prevalent in Western music, and were similar for musicians and non-musicians, suggesting that priors are shaped primarily by passive exposure to the music of a culture. Priors in Tsimané participants also exhibited modes at integer ratios, but were otherwise qualitatively different from priors in US participants, in ways that are consistent with the structures prevalent in their music. Results were similar for different modes of reproduction (finger tapping versus rhythmic vocalization of a rep­eated syllable), but did not extend to the reproduction of spoken phrases. Our results are consistent with the claim that rhythm perception exhibits universal cognitive constraints favoring small integer ratios, but indicate that any such constraints are strongly modulated by experience. Our method holds promise for characterizing priors in a range of other domains in both audition and vision, including spatial memory, phonetics, and melody.

PsyPAG Annual Conference

Our 2017 Annual Conference will be hosted at Northumbria University on 26th-28th July 2017.

Our conference aims to bring postgraduates from across the UK together and allow invaluable presentation experience in a relaxed and friendly environment. Our keynotes this year are Dr Vincent Deary (Northumbria University), Dr Katie Milnes (Leeds Beckett University), Prof Merim Bilalic (Northumbria University) and Dr Lynda Boothroyd (Durham University). In addition to this, the BPS Trainee Conference will also be joining us at this event. We are offering 10 x £100 competitive Conference bursaries to help students attend.

Deadlines for abstract submissions are Wednesday 29th March for workshops and Wednesday 24th May for posters and oral presentations. Early bird registration rates close on Friday 24th March and general registration closes on Friday 7th July. Find more information, submit abstracts and register on our conference website: