Lab-ulous: Get Psyched for Research
Have you ever wondered how the subconscious works, or what the inner map of a mind looks like? If the past three articles about Wesleyan science labs didn’t strike your fancy, but you are dying to know what professors are learning about how people think and feel, then read on. Below, we have highlighted some of the most intriguing research going on in Judd Hall and the Psychology Department.
Associate Professor of Psychology Matthew Kurtz is leading a study on the cognitive effects of schizophrenia. The study is focused on testing and hopefully improving mental processes, including memory, attention, decision-making, and other cognitive functions. The lab conducts much of its research in the real world, as the schizophrenic individuals under study are patients at health institutions.
The six lab assistants are trained at Wesleyan on how to conduct research on these patients. Initial tests for the patients include activities like clicking a mouse whenever they see a yellow square.
Kurtz believes that there are not only individual benefits to his research, but also social impacts.
“[I’m] confident saying that patients get better with cognitive treatment,” Kurtz said. “Almost everyone knows someone who suffers from schizophrenia, and victims are currently unemployed, dealing with serious social problems—it is a huge societal issue.”
What is unclear, Kurtz admits, is whether the cognitive functions translate into overall heightened levels of functioning.
Psychology Professor John Seamon, who teaches Neuroscience and Behavior, also hopes to improve peoples’ well-being by asking if new technology can aid people with memory impairments.
To answer this question, Seamon asks patients with memory deficiencies to wear a camera on their neck throughout the day that takes photos about every five seconds. They subsequently review the photos with a family member or friend.
“What researchers have found [is that] in comparison with a written diary, the memory camera is much more effective at helping these people remember the events of the day,” Seamon said. “One of the most surprising things to come out of these studies is that patients will sometimes spontaneously remember information that wasn’t in the images. They are actually remembering.”
The implication is that these cameras can help patients retrieve information. Through the few case studies that have been completed, Seamon has thus far concluded that the devices prove to be promising in helping people with memory impairments.
Associate Professor Hilary Barth and Assistant Professor Anna Shusterman also study cognition. The Cognitive Development Labs are broken into two different studies, called—appropriately, as test subjects are young children—the yellow and blue lab.
Jillian Roberts ’15, a research assistant for the yellow lab directed by Barth, said the study uses four- to five-year-old children as subjects. The lab focuses on social cognition—particularly number and spatial development—as it relates to trust and group membership.
“We look at number development because it can help us figure out what issues kids are having when they learn math at school,” Roberts said. “One study that we are doing is relating numbers to how children perform in their math classes later on. Do they do better at school-based math if they have a better grasp of quantities at an early age?
In the blue lab, Shusterman and her assistants are researching the development of navigational skills in children, the capability of preschoolers to understand the word “two,” what children understand about quantities before they learn how to count, and the development of number-based learning in children with hearing impairments.
Sam Melvin ’13, a research assistant in the blue lab, said she usually spends 10 hours per week in the lab during the school year and stays during the summer for the 40-hour-per-week commitment.
“[Professor Shusterman] gives us a lot of responsibility and expects us to take initiative as research assistants, which is extremely helpful to the learning process,” Melvin said.
Not only do the results from the research done in Wesleyan’s Psychology department help people understand more about developmental processes and individuals’ struggles, but lab work is also often a highlight of the student experience.
“Working in the Cognitive Development Lab is extremely rewarding overall,” Melvin said. “I’m extremely thankful to have had this experience for the last few years.”