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Three million euros for research into bullying and visual narratives

Published: 05th September 2019 Last updated: 07th September 2019

Two researchers from Tilburg University have each been awarded a prestigious ERC Starting Grant of at least 1.5 million euros. The researchers are Neil Cohn (TSHD) and Matteo Giletta (TSB).

Matteo Giletta (Developmental Psychology) receives the ERC grant for research into bullying: Outside-in: How Bullying in Adolescence Gets Into The Mind and Under the Skin

Neil Cohn (Communication and Cognition) acquired the grant for his research proposal on visual language: Visual narratives as a window into language and cognition.

1. Matteo Giletta: How does bullying affect the brain and genes of adolescents? 

Being bullied is a major stressor for many adolescents and it is recognized as a public health concern worldwide. Adolescents who are exposed to bullying are at increased risk for mental and physical health problems, which could even perpetuate into adulthood. Unfortunately, current understandings of how bullying can pose such deleterious effects remain poor, thus limiting our ability to inform prevention and intervention efforts.

Influence on genes

This project addresses this fundamental gap and substantially extends prior research in two unique ways. First, Matteo will examine fine-grained processes as they occur within adolescents in real-time in their real-life as a crucial pathway for uncovering mechanisms underlying the negative effects of bullying. Second, a multilevel perspective will be adopted to examine the dynamic interplay between multiple psychological and biological processes and how they unfold over time. In this regard, Matteo will examine the possibility that bullying influences gene expression processes resulting in a gene expression profile that increases risk for health problems.

In a first study, he will use a longitudinal measurement burst design, allowing him to examine how bullying exposure can influence within-person processes over time at the daily level. He will assess psychological (e.g., emotional) and physiological (e.g., HPA-axis) functioning in situ, and will use transcriptional profiling to examine how gene expression changes over adolescence as a function of bullying.


In a second study, Matteo will utilize data from the Netherlands Twin Register to identify monozygotic twins who differ from each other in their history of victimization in adolescence and examine their gene expression profiles in early adulthood, while accounting for genetic confounds.

Together, this research will offer unprecedented insights about short- and long-term interplays between psychological, physiological and molecular processes through which bullying may get into the mind and under the skin.

2. Neil Cohn: Can visual narratives be understood worldwide?

Drawn sequences of images are a fundamental aspect of human communication, appearing from instruction manuals and educational material to comics. Despite this, only recently have scholars begun to examine these visual narratives, making this an untapped resource to study the cognition of sequential meaning-making. The emerging field analysing this work has implicated similarities between sequential images and language, which raises the question: Just how similar is the structure and processing of visual narratives and language?

Visual Narrative Systems

Neil proposes to explore this query by drawing on interdisciplinary methods from the psychological and linguistic sciences. First, in order to examine the structural properties of visual narratives, we need a large-scale corpus of the type that has benefited language research. Yet, no such databases exist for visual narrative systems. He will thus create innovative visual annotation tools to build a corpus of 1,500 annotated comics from around the world (Stage 1).

With such a corpus, Neil will then ask, do visual narratives differ in their properties around the world, and does such variance influence their comprehension (Stage 2)? Next, we might ask why such variation appears, particularly: might differences between visual narratives be motivated by patterns in spoken languages, thereby implicating cognitive processes across modalities (Stage 3)?

Multimodal Communication

Thus, this proposal aims to investigate the domain-specific (Stage 2) and domain-general (Stage 3) properties of visual narratives, particularly in relation to language, by analysing both production (corpus analyses) and comprehension (experimentation). This research will be ground-breaking by challenging our knowledge about the relations between drawing, sequential images, and language. The goal is not simply to create tools to explore a limited set of questions, but to provide resources to jumpstart a budding research field for visual and multimodal communication in the linguistic and cognitive sciences.

ERC Starting Grants

ERC Starting Grants are awarded to early-career researchers of any nationality with two to seven years of experience since completion of the PhD (or equivalent degree) and a scientific track record showing great promise. The research must be conducted in a public or private research organisation located in one of the EU Member States or Associated Countries. The funding (maximum €2.5 million per grant, including up to €1 million to cover extraordinary costs) is provided for up to five years. 

Of the 53 grants awarded to the Netherlands, 26 go to scientists with Dutch nationality. The rest have a different nationality and do research in the Netherlands. Conversely, five Dutch people will spend their ERC Starting Grant abroad.