BBSRC MRes/PhD Studentship

The evolution of cumulative culture: Is mental time travel the missing link?

Reference Code: IN060

Closing Date: 29th March 2013


Name of the supervisor(s)
Dr E Price, Centre for Behaviour and Evolution, Institute of Neuroscience

Dr T Smulders, Centre for Behaviour and Evolution, Institute of Neuroscience

This studentship is sponsored by BBSRC as part of the Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP).

Duration of the award
4 years (MRes in Biosciences followed by a three-year PhD).

Project description
To date, little, if any, evidence of cumulative culture has been observed in nonhuman animals. One of the most prominent theories to explain this lack of evidence suggests that humans possess a unique suite of socio-cognitive processes, including imitation. Despite a number of studies claiming imitation in humans and less faithful forms of social learning in nonhumans, the picture remains incomplete. Recent computational models have found that the ability to “remember” the past and “predict” the future were key to successful social learning strategies, and that such “mental time travel” might be linked to the type of social learning strategy required to support cumulative culture in humans.

The student will test this hypothesis directly, by investigating in animals whether performance on social learning tasks and cumulative complex foraging strategies is predicted by individual differences in performance on “mental time travel” tasks, and whether performance on these tasks is better in species which are believed to have better mental time travel abilities (e.g. food-hoarding birds). 

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This inter-disciplinary project will provide training in animal behaviour, comparative psychology, and evolutionary biology and includes the opportunity to work with diverse animal species. Data may be collected at local zoos and travel to facilities outside of Newcastle may be required.

Value of the Award and Eligibility
Depending on how you meet the BBSRC’s eligibility criteria, you may be entitled to a full or a partial award. A full award covers tuition fees at the UK/EU rate and an annual stipend of £13,726 (2013/14). A partial award covers fees at the UK/EU rate only.

Person Specification
Candidates must have a first-class or upper-second-class BSc Honours degree (or equivalent) in an appropriate scientific specialty. Candidates with previous experience investigating behaviour of nonhuman animals (especially primates or birds) are preferred.

How to Apply
You must apply through the University’s online postgraduate application form the reference number IN060 and selecting ‘Master of Research/Doctor of Philosophy (Medical Sciences) – Neuroscience’ as the programme of study. Only mandatory fields need to be completed (no personal statement required) and a covering letter, CV and (if English is not your first language) a copy of your English language qualifications must be attached. The covering letter must state the title of the studentship, quote the reference number IN060 and state how your interests and experience relate to the project.

You should also send your covering letter and CV to Elizabeth Price, Institute of Neuroscience, Henry Wellcome Building, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Newcastle University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE2 4HH (e-mail:

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Further Information
For further details, please contact: Dr E Price E-mail:

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