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Caroline Palmer


Department of Psychology,

Canada Research Chair,

Cognitive Neuroscience of Performance

Brief Vita

Caroline Palmer







Description of research program

My research program combines two related issues in cognitive psychology: how people remember long sequences typical of speech and music, and how they produce those sequences. Many theories of memory for speech, written language, music, and other human endeavors focus on the problem of serial order: knowing what comes next in a sequence. What most theories do not address is the time course of retrieval: when particular sequential information is available, and for how long. My research focuses on the time course of serial order in music performance. Performers' memory for musical sequences can be extremely accurate, despite the complexity, length, and temporal requirements of music (see Finney & Palmer, 2003).

One research theme addresses the range or scope of planning in sequence production; similar to memory span measures that gauge short-term memory capacity, range of planning refers to the span of sequence items that are accessible at a given time during performance (see Palmer, 2005a). We have developed a formal theoretical framework for serial recall in music performance that makes time-dependent predictions for the range of planning during production (see Palmer & Pfordresher, 2003), as well as an account of the relationship between speed and accuracy (see Pfordresher, Palmer, & Jungers, 2007).

A second theme addresses the temporal coordination that underlies skilled performance, and properties of goal-directed movement that allow individuals to synchronize their actions with sensory feedback and with other individuals. Using motion capture techniques, we record performers' body movements. Dynamic (time-dependent) properties of motion inform about how personal identity may be rooted in voluntary, goal-directed actions (see Dalla Bella & Palmer, 2011). Motion during sequence production also relects the biomechanical constraints that arise from musicians' finger and hand movements as they tap on a table (see Loehr & Palmer, 2007), or perform on an instrument (see Palmer, Koopmans, Loehr & Carter, 2009).

A third theme extends our memory findings to understanding how people perceive stable, categorical events in a continuously changing world. Most listeners perceive musical sequences as temporally regular, although the rare case of beat-deaf individuals provides counterevidence (see Phillips-Silver et al, 2011). An ability to perceive temporal regularity is remarkable, given our findings that actual music performances are temporally irregular. We model with dynamical systems how listeners are influenced by the temporal fluctuations with which they coordinate their behavior (see Loehr, Large, & Palmer, 2011. We have shown that synchronization with speech (see Lidji et al, 2011) and with music is aided by listeners’ sensitivity to phase differences in the onsets of produced and perceived beats. This work indicates that temporal structure is fundamental to understanding how people perceive meaningful events in a continuously varying auditory world.


See publications.