We would like to congratulate Johanna Finnemann on completing her PhD! Johanna completed her PhD thesis titled “Investigating Sensory Prediction in Autism Spectrum Conditions” under the supervision of Prof Paul Fletcher. Here, Johanna gives us a quick summary of her work and findings.
Can you give us a short background into what you’ve been studying these last few years?
I’m interested in the interaction between movement and sensory processing and why people can sometimes have completely different sensory experiences in the same situation. We now know that our perceptions are not the direct result of the sensory evidence our brain receives, but depend on both the signal from the outside as well as our predictions about likely signal. Sensory differences have recently come more to the forefront of autism research as well and it has been suggested that autistic people might have different sensory experiences because they ascribe more precision to the incoming sensory information rather than their expectations and predictions about likely outcomes.
How would you sum up your main findings?
I investigated this hypothesis with autistic and non-autistic adults who took part in several experimental paradigms spanning different sensory modalities from motor control to visual perception. The results of the studies indicated that autistic and non-autistic adults learn and use similar models of the world in order to make sense of the incoming streams of sensory data and that therefore a difference in expectation generation is unlikely to be the cause of the sensory atypicalities in autism. Of course there are a few caveats: I did not assess children in my study and it is feasible that by adulthood many people have refined and adapted their strategies even if differences would have been noticeable earlier on in life. Secondly all of my participants had IQs in the normal range and were independent enough to take part in the research without any additional assistance, so these findings might not generalise to other populations with a different phenotypic expression of autism.
What made you want to do a PhD?
While I have always enjoyed learning, I was mostly attracted to solving problems and finding out new things in a more hands-on way. There are very few things as exciting as analysing a new data set and being the first person in the world to look at the plots! I also pretty much operate under the Feynmanian dogma of ‘Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough’ which I think can make the frustrations of doing a PhD a little easier to live with.
What was your best day during your PhD?
Oh, there were many amazing days during my PhD, so it is difficult to choose a single one. There were exciting quantum leap moments when I suddenly had a new idea or insight into a problem I had been working on, but fascinating conversations with colleagues and research participants were equally rewarding. Alongside my PhD I also worked as a research assistant on various other projects including a long-term clinical study with mostly non-verbal autistic children; seeing those children develop and flourish was at times deeply moving and a good reminder of what I would like my research to contribute to.
What was your worst day (if any!) during your PhD?
3 months into my PhD one of my close friends died suddenly and unexpectedly and aside from the personal mourning process it also made me question the usefulness of the work I am doing. As you can see I persisted though and gaining some perspective on the sometimes frustrating and disheartening everyday occurrences in academia can be very useful in the long run.
What do you hope to do next?
I am staying in the department for a little longer working on various behavioural and imaging projects relating to interoception, eating behaviour, reward processing and sensory prediction.