Professor Bill Macken - BA MA Cork PhD Wales


Research group:
Cognitive science
029 208 75354
Tower Building, Park Place

Research summary

I’m particularly interested in the role that auditory perception plays in human cognition. Unlike vision, our auditory sense is always ‘on’-- our ears can’t be closed as can our eyes,  and we pick up auditory information from all directions. This means that it has the potential to provide us with information about the events in the world regardless of what we’re doing at a given time, but of course it also means that it can be a source of potential distraction. Much of my research has been concerned with such distraction – seeking to understand how auditory information may, despite our best efforts to ignore it, impact on our ability to perform different types of tasks. However, I’m also interested in how we use auditory information to accomplish functions such as short-term memory and how the brain uses auditory information to guide activity, especially in relation to how auditory processing relates to speech processing. Primarily I use behavioural experimental techniques to study these questions, although I have also recently begun to utilise brain imaging techniques to understand the processing of auditory information in the brain.

Teaching summary

I lecture at all levels of the UG degree course. At 1st year, I present 5 lectures in the Introduction to Psychology module (PS1016), on ‘Topics in Cognitive Psychology’ where I discuss a range of basic cognitive processes in psychology, emphasising how the things that usually turn up in separate chapters in textbooks – such as memory, attention, language, categorisation – are all interrelated and overlapping aspects of basic psychological functioning. In the 2nd year I present 6 lectures in the Thinking and Consciousness module (PS2022) in which I discuss aspects of human judgement and decision making. In particular I evaluate the common notion that people rely on ‘heuristic’ short cuts when making judgments under uncertainty which lead them to make systematic biases, and argue instead that the evidence that supposedly supports such a view can actually be interpreted as revealing flexible and adaptive processes that ensure that people make optimum use of all the available evidence when arriving at judgements and making decisions. In the final year, I lecture on the Speech Communication module (PS3313), in which I discuss ideas about the origins of speech and language in general functions, of perceptual-motor processing, categorisation, memory, etc. I also hld small group tutorial classes across all Years, as well as running a second year practical and supervising final year projects on various topics related ot my research interests.

Selected publications (2014 onwards)


Online publications

Full list of publications


Research topics and related papers

My research is primarily concerned with processes involved in auditory perception and motor (particularly speech) planning, especially as they relate to what we usually think of as short-term memory. An overall objective of this research is to show that performance in the short term is better thought of as involving the opportunistic co-opting of such perceptual and motor planning processes, rather than being based on stores and processes whose function is the temporary storage of information. There are a number of aspects to this work. One involves the disruptive effect of task-irrelevant sound on short-term memory performance, where we have argued that such disruption reflects the obligatory processing of auditory sequences within a perceptual-motor mapping system that enables us, among other things, to imitate and learn speech from auditory input. The research has also focussed on the way in which general processes involved in auditory perceptual organisation as well as the mechanisms involved in assembling sequences of speech gestures determine short-term memory performance in a way that can’t be accounted for by more traditional, cognitive accounts of short-term memory.


Macken, W.J., Sumner, P., Jones, D.M., & Bracewell, M. (Bangor). (2007). Neural mechanisms underpinning performance and interference with serial short-term memory. Wales Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience. £4,936.

Macken, W.J. (2007-2010). Act then reflect versus reflect then act: Cognitive strategies for contextually appropriate action. Ministry of Defence/QinetiQ. £97,400.

Jones, D.M. & Macken, W.J. (2007-2010). Linkages between auditory perception and action: Auditory affordances for auditory-visual displays. Ministry of Defence/QinetiQ. £104,900.

Jones, D.M., Hughes, R.W., & Macken, W.J. (2006-2009). Verbal short-term memory: Primitive or parasite? ESRC. £251,974

Macken, W.J. & Phelps, F.G. (2006-2007). Meaning and organisation in semantic memory: The role of functional information. ESRC. £46,679.

Jones, D.M., Macken, W.J., & Hughes, R.W. (2006-2007). Attentional selectivity and semantic memory: Studies of auditory distraction. ESRC. £47,106.

Macken, W.J., Jones, D.M., & Murray, A.C. (2001-2004). Organisational factors in serial recall: The role of perception and rehearsal. ESRC. £170,179.

Jones, D.M. & Macken, W.J. (2002). Cognitive streaming and workload. QinetiQ. £25,140.

Jones, D.M. & Macken, W.J. (1999-2001). Task alternation as workload. Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. £96,497.

Macken, W.J. (1997-1998). Recollective experience: the role of stimulus attributes and spatio-temporal information. ESRC. £32,101.

Research group

Dylan Jones
Rob Hughes
Sébastien Tremblay

Postgraduate research interests

My main interests relate to cognitive processing in long- and short-term memory. With regard to long-term memory, my focus is upon the processes that underlie different types of recollective experience in recognition memory, and on the role of contextual information in determining memory performance. For short-term memory, my general interest is in how auditory perceptual processes and speech planning processes are brought to bear in short-term performance. Related to this is the issue of order processing in the auditory domain and how such perceptual order processing is related to the ability to reproduce ordered sequences via speech planning mechanisms. In other words, I am interested in the relationship between perception and action in the context of auditory and verbal processing.

If you are interested in applying for a PhD, or for further information regarding my postgraduate research, please contact me directly (contact details available on the 'Overview' page), or submit a formal application here.

Current students

David Maidment. David’s work is funded by the ESRC and involves examining the way in which information from different modalities (e.g., written, heard, lipread) is represented and constrains short-term memory performance.

Sian Miles. Sian’s PhD is funded by the Haldane-Spearman Consortium and involves understanding the processes involved in discriminating between target and  non-target objects when the latter are very similar to the former.

Joel Burton. Joel’s PhD is funded by the Haldane-Spearman Consortium and involves investigating how obligatory auditory processing may facilitate motor responding.

Previous students

Emma McDonald. Emma’s PhD was funded by the School of Psychology and involved mapping intact and impaired short-term memory performance in adult dyslexia.

Amelia Woodward. Amelia’s PhD was funded by the School and the ESRC and investigated the way in which motor constraints, especially those involved in articulatory fluency, determined short-term memory performance.

Alastair Mckenzie-Kerr. Alastair’s PhD was funded by the EPSRC/Qinetiq and involved the way in which problem solving strategy selection is influenced by aspects of the problem such as familiarity and semantics.

Fiona Phelps. Fiona’s PhD was funded by the School of Psychology and involved studies of how different types of featural information about objects (e.g., physical versus functional features) contributed to their semantic representations.

Rob Houghton. Rob’s PhD was funded by EPSRC/Qinetiq and focussed on the way in which low level sensory process, particularly the motion after effect, were modulated by central ‘cognitive’ activity.

Undergraduate education

1986: BSc Applied Psychology. University College, Cork

Postgraduate education

1990: MPhil Dual-process accounts of recognition. University College, Cork

1996: PhD Mechanisms of interference in short-term memory. Cardiff University

External Activities

Member of ESRC Peer Review College (2010-)

Ad hoc reviewer for grant applications and rapporteur on End of Award reports for ESRC, EPSRC and AHRC.

Ad hoc peer reviewer for Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, Journal of Memory and Language, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, International Journal of Psychology, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Memory and Cognition, Memory, Perception.

PhD external examiner  at University of Plymouth, University of Wolverhampton, Keele University, Free University (Belgium), Laval University (Canada).


2015-present: Professor, School of Psychology, Cardiff University

2008-2015: Reader, School of Psychology, Cardiff University

2003-2008: Senior lecturer, School of Psychology, Cardiff University

1995-2003: Lecturer, School of Psychology, Cardiff University

1990-1995: Research Assistant/Associate, School of Psychology, Cardiff University