Birkbeck, University of London, UK
What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on the typical and atypical development of the “social brain” — the network of neural structures specialized to process the social world that enables us to learn effectively from, interact with, and influence the behavior of others. I want to understand how young infants achieve these amazing abilities and how these capacities shape the development of adult social skills. I am interested in the reasons why individuals with autism, a developmental disorder characterized by profound difficulties in social interaction and communication, have difficulties in developing effective social skills.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
I am fascinated by human society and how its size, complexity and distinctiveness from other species are fundamental to our survival and prosperity. It was greatly reinforced in the final year of my BA, when I worked with children with autism and was surprised to learn how subtle atypicalities in social skills could have such a profound impact on quality of life. The experience has made me passionate about determining the mechanisms underlying atypical development of social skills in autism, which will hopefully lead to the development of useful interventions, training, and support.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
I am lucky to have had so many mentors and sources of inspiration that only a handful can be mentioned in this small space. Toshikazu Hasegawa of the University of Tokyo and Mariko Hasegawa of the Graduate University for Advanced Studies, Sokendai gave me all I needed to obtain my PhD — freedom, support, encouragement, and advice on science and career development. Yoshikuni Tojo of Ibaraki University helped me learn the science, as well as the practice, of autism research. Mark Johnson of Birkbeck, University of London and Gergely Csibra of the Central European University opened doors to the study of cognitive and brain development and helped me become an independent scientist. Last but not least, Uta Frith of the University College London showed me how scientists can achieve many great things in their careers while remaining active, passionate, and on the front line.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
I owe my success to my mentors, collaborators, and students, and to my ever-supportive wife. I also wish to thank the families who kindly participated in our research, especially the parents who brought their young children into the lab and provided great insight into their children’s behavior — Mum knows best.
What’s your future research agenda?
I shall test predictions derived from my recently developed model of mechanisms underlying the “eye contact effect,” the phenomenon of how perceived eye contact modulates social brain activation. Eye contact is a curious example of rapid, spontaneous, and on-line social communication, and it provides an ideal topic for psychological research on the social brain. I will also continue to discuss new research ideas with my colleagues and students.
Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
Although psychological science is a natural science, it has direct links with many of the social sciences. Consequently, I would encourage young scientists to learn from these neighboring fields of study and think about the impact of their research not only on psychological science, but also on science in general and on society as a whole. Another important thing, as in any other profession, is to stay cautiously optimistic. Enjoy every little success and achievement, and celebrate it with your labmates, friends, and family if possible. Don’t feel disheartened when things don’t go quite as you expected. Sleep on it, relax and unwind with friends, and seek objective opinions from your mentors and colleagues. In most cases, you will find that it was not a total disaster, but a small stumbling block you can deal with, or even a great opportunity to develop your research in a new direction.
What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
Senju, A., Tojo, Y., Dairoku, H., & Hasegawa, T. (2004). Reflexive orienting in response to eye gaze and an arrow in children with and without autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45, 445-458.
The above paper is the first that I submitted to an international journal. It involved four revisions and took more than a year to get accepted. This review process was my first chance to “meet the world” at a time when I was virtually the only person in Japan working on this topic. The experience boosted my confidence and strongly motivated me to meet, talk, and collaborate with other like-minded scientists across the globe, which created my current research style. Additionally, it remains the second most-cited paper among all of my publications.