Caroline Palmer


Professor,Caroline Palmer

Department of Psychology,

Canada Research Chair,

Cognitive Neuroscience of Performance

caroline.palmer [at]

Brief Vita 

Description of research program

My research program combines 2 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 (see Palmer & Pfordresher, 2003) . 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 nonlinear dynamics underlying the production of auditory sequences. Speech, music, and other human sounds follow predictable patterns or rhythmic regularities that can be modeled in terms of oscillations. We apply principles of nonlinear dynamics to understand how people move in response to sound (such as clapping or tapping their feet) and how they move in response to a partner in a joint task (such as musical ensemble) (see Zamm, Wellman & Palmer, 2016). We also study the nonlinear dynamics of brain responses to sound, using electroencephalography methods to measure periodic oscillations in human brains (Zamm, Palmer et al, 2017).

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; Goebl & Palmer, 2013). 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 a musical instrument (see Palmer, Koopmans, Loehr & Carter, 2009).

A third theme addresses how people coordinate their actions with others. Most listeners perceive musical sequences as temporally regular, although the rare case of beat-deaf individuals provides counterevidence (see Phillips-Silver et al, 2011; Palmer et al, 2014). When two or more individuals perform together, as in musical ensembles, their goal to synchronize is especially challenging, given that humans produce sound that is 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) as well as 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.