Professor John M Pearce FLSW FRS - BSc Leeds, DPhil Sussex


Research group:
029 208 74483
Tower Building, Park Place

Research summary

My research is concerned with understanding the fundamental mechanisms of intelligence in animals, with particular emphasis placed on learning.  With Geoffrey Hall, from the University of York, I have developed an original theory concerning the role that attention plays in learning.  According to this theory, animals will pay attention to a task while they learn about it, but once it has been mastered, they will direct their attention elsewhere.  I have also developed a theory about the information animals acquire when a pattern of stimulation is repeatedly used to signal an important event, such as food.  The pattern of stimulation is assumed to be remembered as a sort of mental snapshot, based on all the information that was present immediately prior to the occurrence of food. 

Most of the foregoing research is based on  experiments conducted in test chambers that provide a well controlled environment for studying the fundamental mechanisms of animal intelligence.  Other research of mine is exploring the extent to which the principles derived from this research extends to more naturalistic settings, such as navigating through familiar territory to locate a hidden goal.  Thus far, the principles appear to apply reasonably well to both types of environment.

Teaching summary

I offer a series of lectures on animal intelligence for the Biological Psychology module in Year 1.  In Year 2, I present a practical on perception.  In Year 3, I contribute to the Animal Learning and Cognition module.

Selected publications (2014 onwards)


Full list of publications


Research topics and related papers

A significant proportion of my current research is based on a novel technique I have developed to study the changes in attention that take place during learning.  This technique has allowed me to demonstrate that during the course of a discrimination animals come to pay more attention to the stimuli that signal both the presence and the absence of reward, than to those that are irrelevant.  These changes in attention take place to individual stimuli, and not to whole dimensions of stimuli.  Other studies have shown that animals pay more attention to stimuli that are unreliable, rather than reliable predictors of important events such as food.  I am currently developing a theory which describes the circumstances in which these, and other, changes in attention take place.

Another aim of my research is to understand the role that configural information contributes to associative learning.  I have argued that when a pattern of stimulation signals a biologically important event, then a representation consisting of all the features of that pattern enters into an association with that even. Experiments are currently exploring the implications of this proposal for our understanding of how simple discriminations are solved.

The third research topic involves the spatial learning that takes place when an animal must find a hidden goal in an arena with a distinctive shape, such as a rectangle. One set of studies has identified the information about the rectangle that is used to find the goal. Rather than locate the goal by referring to the overall shape of the environment, animals use more local information such as “search at the left-hand end of a long wall”.  Another set of studies has explored whether the principles of associative learning derived in the conditioning chamber extend to spatial learning in distinctively shaped environments.  On the whole, the principles transfer remarkably well between these two very different test contexts.  The final line of research is concerned with identifying a formal rule which describes how an animal decides to search for a goal in one location rather than another.


BBSRC, project grant (2010-2012 , £459,737): Attention and predictive learning.  Pearce, J. M.,  and k Good, M.

Australian Research Council, project grant (2009-2011, Australian $169,000): Learning and deciding under low levels of awareness: Representation issues and memory processes.  Humphreys, M., Tangen, J., Cornwall, T. B., Vokey, J,., and Pearce, J. M.

Wellcome Trust, programme grant (2009-2014, £1,569,168):  Interleaving brain mechanisms for   recognition and episodic memory.  Aggleton, J. P. Bashir, Z. I., Brown, M. W., Pearce, J. M., Warburton, C.E.

Research group

Jemma Dopson, Postdoctoral Fellow (attention and associative learning)

Murray Horne, Postdoctoral Fellow (spatial learning)

Postgraduate research interests

My research is directed at the study of animal learning and cognition. I am particularly interested in enhancing our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of associative learning. To this end, my research has focussed on discrimination learning and categorisation. I am investigating the role of attentional processes in this type of learning, and the role that configural information plays when discrimination involves complex patterns of stimulation. Many of my findings point to a similarity between the basic mechanisms of learning in animals and humans. Another line of research is concerned with how animals are able to navigate towards a hidden goal by reference to landmarks that lie some distance from it. Some of my studies are exploring the extent to which such spatial learning can be explained by the principles that apply to discrimination learning. Other studies are investigating the contribution made by different neural structures to navigation.

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

Kerry Gilroy, Research Assistant  (attention and associative learning)
Natalie Williams,  Research Student (attention and associative learning)

Previous students

H. Kaye (1983). The effects of Pavlovian conditioning on the orienting response in rats.
D. Young (1984).  The role of generalisation decrement in Pavlovian conditioning.
L. Collins (1984).  The influence of partial reinforcement on serial autoshaping with pigeons.
J.  Swan (1987).  The role of predictive accuracy in Pavlovian conditioning.
R. Ramachandran (1987).  A Pavlovian analysis of the interaction between hunger and thirst. 
S. Lister (1994).  The effects of 5,7-dihodroxytryptamine on discrimination learning in rats.
A. Aydin (1995).  Response summation.
R. Darby (1995).  Fundamental units of association: Elemental or configural?
D. George (1997).  Acquired distinctiveness.
A. Roberts (1999). A study of spatial learning.
M. Haselgrove (2002).  Timing and extinction.
P. Jones (2005).  The role of the hippocampus in spatial navigation by the rat.
G Ramos-Esber (2008).  Mechanisms responsible for cue-competition effects.
A. Hayward (2008).  A study of spatial learning based on the shape of the environment.
R. Mui (2008). Evaluation of a theory of imitation.
M. Horne (2009).  An associative analysis of spatial learning in environments with a distinctive shape.
J. Dopson (2009).  The fate of irrelevant stimuli in Pavlovian conditioning.

Undergraduate education

1971 BSc, University of Leeds, Department of Psychology.

Postgraduate education

1976 DPhil, University of Sussex, Laboratory of Experimental Psychology.

Awards/external committees

2012-2014: President of the Experimental Psychology Society.

2012: Elected Fellow of the Eastern Psychological Association.

2012: British Psychological Society Award for Excellence in Psychology Education.

2010: Founding Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales

2009: Research Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

2008: 36th Bartlett Lecturer.

2006: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society.

2001: Quad-L award from the University of New Mexico for contribution to the study of learning, memory and cognition


1976-1978: SERC Research Fellow, Department of Psychology, University of York.

1978-1980: MRC Research Fellow, Psychological Laboratory, University of Cambridge.

1980-1988: Lecturer, Department of Psychology, University College, Cardiff.

1988-1992: Reader, School of Psychology, University of Wales College of Cardiff.

External Appointments

1987-1988: Visiting Professor, Department of Psychology, Duke University, USA 1999: Visiting Fellow, Institute of Advanced Study, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA 2001: Visiting Erskine Fellow, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. 2007- 2010: International Mentor to PhD student Anna Thorwart, University of Marburg.