Richard Cook

Social Perception Research Group

I completed my PhD in the Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences Research Department at University College London (UCL), before taking up a lectureship at City University London in February 2012. In July 2013 I was identified as an ESRC Future Research Leader, and was appointed Senior Lecturer in April 2014. In July 2014 I was awarded the British Academy's Wiley Prize in Psychology. In December 2015 I was identified as a Rising Star by the Association for Psychological Science. In 2017 I was awarded an ERC Starting Grant. In September 2017, I joined Birkbeck, University of London as Reader in Psychology.

I have two principal research interests: The first is social perception - the mechanisms mediating the perception of human faces, bodies and actions and how they differ from the processes recruited by other 'generic' classes of stimuli. While considerable research attention has focused on the recognition of identity from static stimuli, the role of dynamic motion cues remains poorly understood. Equally, the mechanisms mediating perception of human bodies have been largely neglected despite a number of parallels with faces. 

My second interest relates to mirror neurons, imitation and the visuomotor correspondence problem. Automatic imitation, i.e. the unconscious, unintentional copying of observed actions, is evidence that action observation can excite corresponding motor representations. However, whether these associations are innate or acquired through sensorimotor experience, remains a topic of intense debate. Much of my work with Cecilia Heyes (University of Oxford) has been concerned with testing the claim that mirror neurons acquire their sensorimotor properties through associative learning.

The fusiform gyrus (shown in red) is thought to play a crucial role in social perception, containing regions of cortex responsive to human bodies and faces. Damage to the right fusiform gyrus in particular, often leads to problems recognising faces - a condition known as prosopagnosia.

Photographic negation is thought to interfere more with the perception of faces than other classes of object (Galper, 1970). Two accounts have been offered for this effect - negation may disrupt observers' ability to use shading cues to infer facial structure. Alternatively, representation of surface reflectance cues, such as patterns of pigmentation and colouration, may be disrupted. 


While the top right and bottom right images are in fact identical, the image manipulation (inversion of the mouth and eyes) is more salient when the face context is upright. This is an example of the so-called 'Thatcher illusion' having first been demonstrated with an image of Margaret Thatcher (Thompson, 1980). This is frequently cited as evidence for the holistic representation of upright faces, the logic being that quick detection of feature-context disparities can only be achieved if a configural process is recruited.