Professor Peter William Halligan is an internationally renowned psychologist and neuroscientist whose research covers a range of different neurological and psychiatric conditions including attentional disorders, motor conversion, the nature of beliefs, delusions, neuroplasticity and phantom limb phenomena, hypnosis and consciousness.
Born in Dublin, Peter is the second eldest of six children, five of whom are graduates of UCD. In 1985, he left Ireland to work as a research psychologist at a leading UK neurorehabilitation hospital in Oxford, before joining the Department of Clinical Neurology at Oxford University as a research fellow in 1987. In 1997, he joined the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford as an MRC Senior Research Fellow and in 2000, he joined Cardiff University as Distinguished Research Professor in Neuropsychology. This year he received an honorary CBE from King Charles III for services to neuropsychology research and science in government.
1. What was your UCD experience like – the social scene, classes, lecturers?
The 1970s were an enjoyable period to be a student. The Department of Psychology was located on the fourth floor of the Newman Building, the Belfield campus was still being built, and handwritten essays were all part of the slower pace of life. When I began, Eamonn Fechín O’Doherty was the Professor of Logic and Psychology. Lectures in Theatre L were the first introduction to the mysteries of psychology. I also recall memorable classes with Dr Patrick Masterson, then Professor of Philosophy who later became UCD President (1986-1993), Dr Teresa Iglesias and Fr Brendan Purcell.
2. What is your fondest memory from your time at UCD?
There are a few, but my fondest memory is of the cherry blossoms around the Arts Block during exam time in May. Participating in UCD Athletic Sport events and my daily cycles from Templeogue to Belfield also stick out in my mind.
3. Have you been back to campus since graduation? How has it changed?
The Belfield campus has grown and changed significantly since the 70s, but the Library and main Arts Building appear much the same. After leaving in 1985, I returned to UCD on several occasions. From 2005-2008, I was external examiner for the School of Psychology, and in 2012 I took part in a Quality Review of the School of Psychology which was a good opportunity to catch up with Aidan Moran, Suzanne Guerin and other staff. In 2019, I had the opportunity to meet up with Professor Andrew Deeks, then UCD President, and Professor Orla Feely, then UCD Vice-President for Research, Innovation and Impact, when delivering a keynote on the Welsh Government’s aim to maintain and grow its extensive research collaborations with UCD and other Irish universities.
4. How has your degree benefited your career?
When I joined UCD in 1976, I was not sure what to study. Three years later I graduated with a BA in Psychology and Philosophy. Having discovered philosophy, I subsequently pursued an MA in 1981, and the following year a HDip in Ed before graduating in 1984 with a Postgraduate Higher Diploma in Psychology. Fifteen years later, and having secured a PhD in Neuropsychology from Oxford Brookes, I returned to UCD and was awarded a DSc in cognitive neuroscience for my published research in 1999. There is little doubt that the early academic foundations in psychology, philosophy, and education at UCD provided the foundations and opportunity to develop my subsequent career interests in cognitive neuropsychology at both Oxford and Cardiff Universities.
5. What first attracted you to neuropsychology?
I was always interested in how brains regulate behaviour and emotions. In 1976, when I started at UCD, my first-year undergraduate psychology degree included philosophy and English. While initially appearing less interesting, philosophy subsequently proved useful in revealing some of the conceptual confusions and intuitive assumptions implicit in the cognitive neuroscience disciplines. For example, most of us hold strong intuitive beliefs that we possess a direct perception of the world, largely because we have no awareness of the complex brain process involved in creating and maintaining the everyday world we experience, until these processes become impaired following brain damage. The realisation that many aspects of our mental life involve brain processing that we remain unaware of is one of the many reasons why neuropsychology remains a popular and fascinating discipline.
My research interest in neuropsychology began in 1984 while gaining experience with clinical neurological patients at the National Neurological Centre at St Laurence’s Hospital in Dublin. Working with neurosurgeons I organised and participated in the neuropsychological testing of the first patient to undergo a “split-brain” operation for intractable epilepsy in Ireland. This involved working with some of Ireland’s leading clinical neuropsychologists at the time. In addition to making seizures less severe and less frequent, the operation also provided a unique glimpse into the relationship between mind and brain specialisation. As such procedures were (and are) comparatively rare, I produced a television documentary which featured the operation and feedback from the patient and clinicians.
6. What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?
As an early career researcher starting off in the UK in the 1980s, my greatest challenge was ensuring I could secure my next project or programme funding grants, given the growth and competition for neuroscience research funding.
7. What is the proudest moment of your career to date?
Following the merger of the University of Wales College of Medicine and Cardiff University in 2003, I was invited to prepare a bid to the UK Office of Science and Technology to establish Wales’ first brain imaging facility. The application was successful, and I secured one of the largest investments from the OST and funding council (£15 million) for a multi-modality imaging centre in the UK. Having led the successful multidisciplinary bid, I was appointed Project Director and subsequently Founding Director of the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre. This involved considerable day to day responsibility for the planning and construction of a dedicated new multi-million-pound building housing state-of-the-art imaging equipment. It also involved communicating with relevant university and supplier stakeholders, risk assessment monitoring, and negotiating service contracts, in addition to appointing and managing a large team of senior multidisciplinary academics (including 3 physicists), technical staff, and support staff. I managed to bring the project in on time and on budget.
8. Who are the most interesting or helpful mentors or advisors that you have had?
I was lucky to have had several inspiring mentors throughout my career. Firstly my parents, who although they never had the opportunity to attend further education, always maintained a keen and informed interest in their children’s academic careers.
As one of the UK’s foremost experimental psychologists, Professor John C. Marshall was an influential mentor when I began working at Oxford. He was one of my PhD supervisors, a colleague, and an occasional sparring partner. Few could match John’s productivity and impressive range of knowledge covering theoretical and empirical work, both within and well beyond cognitive neuroscience. A truly renaissance researcher and inspirational teacher, his ideas and enquiring approach continued to challenge and influence me, and all those who have had the benefit of working with him.
When I moved to Cardiff University in 2000, I began working with Professor Hadyn Ellis, one of the UK’s leading psychologists, known for his pioneering research on the cognitive psychology of face recognition and later ground-breaking work on the genesis of delusion formation. An excellent communicator and friend, Haydn was greatly admired for his ability to listen, probe, and act with gentle but persuasive influence, earning the respect of all those who had the privilege of working with him.
9. What does receiving this honorary CBE mean to you?
I am honoured and pleased to be included in the 2023 UK Honours list. I am particularly grateful to my parents for their encouragement, interest, and support throughout my career. The CBE award recognises not just my work, but the great team of colleagues with whom I have had the privilege of working and collaborating with over many years. Hopefully such awards help inspire more young scientists into the field of neuropsychology research.
10. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
There are a few, including: “life is all about managing expectations – most of which are your own,” “life is not so much what you accomplish as what you overcome,” and “luck begins with hard work” – some great advice to live by.
11. What are your Top 3 Desert Island Discs
Ennio Morricone’s Gabriel’s Oboe (Whispers in a Dream) by Hayley Westenra, Benedictus (The Armed Man) by Karl Jenkins, and Sunrise Mass by Ola Gjeilo.