Joseph Devlin



BSc Computer Science from Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, USA; PhD in Artificial Intelligence from Univ of Southern California, USA


Good question. Not sure I have any…

Work History:

Postdoctoral fellow in Experimental Psychology at University of Cambridge 1998-200; Postdoctoral Fellow (2000-2003) and then Research Lecturer (2004-2007) in Clinical Neurology at Oxford University; Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London (2007-present)

Current Job:

Head of Experimental Psychology and Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience



My Interview

Me and my work

My background is Artificial Intelligence but I’m something of an apostate because I just don’t believe AI is getting anywhere (having said that, it’s produced lots of cool toys!). So I got interested in natural intelligence and how the brain solves the problem. Nowadays, I’m a cognitive neuroscience with a primary interest in the neurobiology of language. In my spare time I am also head of the Experimental Psychology department at UCL and I serve on the Wellcome Trust / Educational Endowment Foundation’s Education Neuroscience panel.

Typical day

Tricky one! About 50-60% of my work day is spent doing administration related to the department. The rest is spent teaching or working with my students on their projects and papers. Last term was my main teaching term, so this term a typical day will involve meeting with my MSc and PhD students to collect or analyse data; meeting with members of my department to solve problems, do appraisals, or discuss issues; and meeting with other administrators. I spend a lot of time in meetings!

What topics do you work on?

The central question my research aims to answer is: Why is human language a unique ability in the animal kingdom? Although other animals certainly communicate, sometimes in fairly sophisticated ways, no other species uses such a rich, complex system, capable of conveying essentially infinite amounts of information. My research focuses specifically on the brain-basis of this difference. Interestingly, there is no single area of the human brain dedicated to language that differentiates us from other primates such as chimps. Instead, the differences may be related to how information is integrated across brain regions. My work aims to: i) determine how such information is represented and processed in human brains, ii) to identify how similar or different this processing is across species, and iii) to investigate potential differences in the wiring patterns in human brains that enable novel interactions which potentially give rise to human language.

What methods do you use?

I use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), diffusion-weighted MRI, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and behavioural experiments.

Who was your favourite teacher?

I had three favorites. The first was an English teacher who really helped me to write better by challenging us and treating us like adults. The second was a Biology teacher that same year. I didn’t think I was interested in Biology but she made it come alive (see what I’ve done there? :). Finally, I had a Government teacher who made dry topics like the constitution, citizenship and politics fascinating. I think they all had a passion for their topic and a tendency to treat us with respect but expecting a lot from us. They were great.