Skip to main content
School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Insect visual cognition and neural computation

Research environment

The School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences at Queen Mary is one of the UK’s elite research centres. We offer a multi-disciplinary research environment and have approximately 150 PhD students working on projects in the biological and psychological sciences. Our students have access to a variety of research facilities supported by experienced staff, as well as a range of student support services.

The supervisors Chittka and Bor are international research leaders in human and insect cognition; they have over 300 publications between them, many in leading international journals such as Nature and Science. Their labs are furnished with cutting edge technology and computing equipment. Please see their lab web pages for further details: Chittka Lab and Bor Lab  

Training and development

Our PhD students become part of Queen Mary’s Doctoral College which provides training and development opportunities, advice on funding, and financial support for research. Our students also have access to a Researcher Development Programme designed to help recognise and develop key skills and attributes needed to effectively manage research, and to prepare and plan for the next stages of their career.

The supervisors have trained >30 PhD students, many of whom are now full professors at top international universities, since they receive outstanding training and have often published in leading international journals as part of their PhDs. 

Project description

Any project in the areas of supervisors Lars Chittka and Daniel Bor are possible - please consult the supervisors to discuss your ideas. One possibility is a project on high-efficiency, low energy visual information processing, using insects as a model. The rationale is that presently, supercomputers are spectacularly inefficient compared to biological brains in terms of energy consumption. IBM’s “Summit” supercomputer is hailed as one of the most energy-efficient – it runs at 13 Megawatts, weighs 340 tons and occupies 5600 square feet. The human brain weighs ~1kg, runs on 12W, yet easily outperforms any supercomputer. Insect brains are smaller still – a bee’s is ~1mm2, and runs on a drop of nectar – but delivers highly accurate long distance navigation, collision avoidance, face recognition, concept learning, numerical skills, tool use and high memory capacities for visual landmarks and objects.

Leveraging the principles of energy-efficient computing in miniature brains will revolutionise computer science and AI. A fundamental energy-saving principle in brains is to send (and store) information only when absolutely necessary, and the goal of this PhD project is to identify behavioural and computational strategies by which the bee brain achieves this. One way in which this could be achieved is by sequential scanning of only salient target features in ways determined by the spatial arrangement of said features. Another is by selective attention – a sort of “inner eye” that focusses only on those aspects of incoming sensory information that is salient at any one time.

In this PhD we study both “bottom up” (stimulus or event driven) attentional processes as well as “top down” processes, by which the central nervous system controls which visual targets are being sought and identified. We explore the extent to which insect eyes can be viewed as biological event-driven cameras, and the extent to which such cameras can be made more efficient by leveraging principles of insect vision. We investigate attention as the biological equivalent of electronic foveation (as used in computerised visual recognition mechanisms) and we use computational modelling to understand the neural underpinnings of visual information processing in bees. 


This studentship is open to students applying for China Scholarship Council funding. Queen Mary University of London has partnered with the China Scholarship Council (CSC) to offer a joint scholarship programme to enable Chinese students to study for a PhD programme at Queen Mary. Under the scheme, Queen Mary will provide scholarships to cover all tuition fees, whilst the CSC will provide living expenses for 4 years and one return flight ticket to successful applicants. 

Eligibility and applying

Applicants must:

  • Be Chinese students with a strong academic background.
  • Students must hold a PR Chinese passport.
  • Applicants can either be resident in China at the time of application or studying overseas. 
  • Students with prior experience of studying overseas (including in the UK) are eligible to apply. Chinese QMUL graduates/Masters’ students are therefore eligible for the scheme.

Please refer to the CSC website for full details on eligibility and conditions on the scholarship.

Applications are invited from outstanding candidates with (or expecting to receive) an excellent degree in an area relevant to the project - e.g. computational neuroscience or other modelling skills, psychology, attention, animal cognition. A masters degree is desirable, but not essential.

Applicants are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our English language requirements page for details.

The deadline for applications to Queen Mary is 30th January 2022. Applicants will need to complete an online application form by this date to be considered, including a CV, personal statement and qualifications. Shortlisted applicants will be invited for a formal interview by the project supervisor. Those who are successful in their application for our PhD programme will be issued with an offer letter which is conditional on securing a CSC scholarship (as well as any academic conditions still required to meet our entry requirements).

Once applicants have obtained their offer letter from Queen Mary they should then apply to CSC for the scholarship by the advertised deadline with the support of the project supervisor. For September 2022 entry, applicants must complete the CSC application on the CSC website between 10th March - 31st March 2022.

Only applicants who are successful in their application to CSC can be issued an unconditional offer and enrol on our PhD programme.

Apply Online


  • Mediano, P. A., Rosas, F. E., Farah, J. C., Shanahan, M., Bor, D., & Barrett, A. B. (in press). Integrated information as a common signature of dynamical and information-processing complexity. 
  • Mediano, P., Ikkala, A., Kievit, R. A., Jagannathan, S. R., Varley, T. F., Stamatakis, E. A., ... & Bor, D. (2021). Fluctuations in neural complexity during wakefulness relate To conscious level and cognition. bioRxiv.
  • Loukola O.J., Perry C.J., Coscos L. & Chittka L. (2017) Bumblebees show cognitive flexibility by improving on an observed complex behavior. Science 355(6327): 833-836. DOI: 10.1126/science.aag2360
  • Luppi, A. I., Mediano, P. A., Rosas, F. E., Harrison, D. J., Carhart-Harris, R. L., Bor, D., & Stamatakis, E. A. (2021). What it is like to be a bit: an integrated information decomposition account of emergent mental phenomena. Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2021(2), niab027.
  • Peng F. & Chittka L. (2017) A Simple Computational Model of the Bee Mushroom Body Can Explain Seemingly Complex Forms of Olfactory Learning and Memory. Current Biology 27(2): 224-230. DOI:
  • Solvi C., Gutierrez Al-Khudhairy S. & Chittka L. (2020) Bumble bees display cross-modal object recognition between visual and tactile senses. Science 367, 910-912. DOI: B13
Back to top