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Brain Games: Inside the BC Psychology Department

With topics ranging from sleep to imagination, Boston College’s psychological research department is abundant this fall with experiments that are sure to enlighten all those involved. The Heights combed McGuinn Hall, the home base for a vast majority of BC’s psychology department, and spoke with a broad range of researchers about their ongoing work.

Though many of the principal researchers behind the studies did not want to say too much about their experiments in an effort to not give too much away, we walked away with a broader understanding of the postgraduate work taking place at BC. From what we could hear (and understand), the upcoming results of these experiments are something to be really psyched about.

“Visual Imagination Study”

When it comes to imagination, the researchers in the study “Visual Imagination Study” definitely have an idea that “colors outside the lines,” so to speak.

“Our hope is that we can show after five weeks that those drawing from instructional visual imagination intervention will show improved levels of visual imagination,” said Ellen Winner, the principal researcher of the study and a professor in the psychology department.

The idea for the project emerged after The Templeton Foundation, an organization that funds interdisciplinary research on human purpose, put out a request for a proposal to study imagination. The study required a proposal for a new measure of imagination, and thus Winner and her team decided to develop a measure of visual imagination.

They are currently in the process of validating the project to show that people in the arts do better on tasks involving imagination. The intervention that they propose consists of five weeks of drawing lessons in order to show that certain kinds of drawing instruction can improve visual imagination.

Observational drawing, in which participants draw what they see, is being used as the controlled variable within the experiment, which is what you see and is not expected to change the level of visual imagination. The main part of the design of the experiment includes participants drawing from their imaginations with the help of instructional videos that will propose ideas such as “draw the imagined underlying structure of a figure” or “create an imagined space.”

After five weeks, the participants will email their drawings to the researchers, who will then compare the levels of visual imagination from the beginning to the end of the five weeks. The participants in the study are all non-art majors.

Working alongside Winner is Jen Drake, another principal investigator for the study, and Winner’s former doctoral student. These researchers have also collaborated with two art teachers, Seymour Simmons and Seth Brouser from Winthrop University in South Carolina, who have assisted in the creative development of the instructional videos used in the study.

“Time, Number, and Math Games”

Another research study, by the name of “Time, Number and Math Games,” is focused on studying predictors of math achievement—namely, what types of tasks correlate with later math achievement and how people learn about different representations of numbers.

“Our lab is interested in how infants, children, and adults learn about number and math concepts,” said researcher Karina Hamamouche, a Ph.D. candidate in the BC psychology department.

The team doesn’t have any restrictions on who can participate, although in some studies they need native English speakers.

Despite this, anyone can sign up for time slots on SONA, which is a system that allows researchers to post time slots about their different studies, and people can choose to participate at whatever time works best for them.

“Matching Games”

Want to be transported back to your childhood days of board games and matching? Sign up to participate in “Matching Games,” another ongoing research study in the psychology department.

The design of the project is a matching game in which the participant sees one set of dots followed shortly by another set of dots.

The participant then has to choose which of those two options matches with the first one that they saw. That match is either based on numbers or the proportion or percentage of red dots out of the whole.

Although the participant is always paying attention to the red dots, the quantity of red dots takes on a very different meaning depending on what they are told to look for within each task. The goal of the study is to see how people might be matching data differently depending on which type of quantity they are paying attention to.

“Our lab in general looks at how people look at numerical information and quantity,” researcher Michelle Hurst, MCAS `20, said. “Quantity can take on many different meanings, so in the ‘Matching Games’ study, we are comparing what changes when the quantity that we are asking people to pay attention to is an absolute number like ‘10 dots or 40 dots,’ or what happens when it’s a relational quantity. If half or a quarter of the dots are blue, how does that change the way that people are paying attention to the information?”

This experiment may be a few steps up from your childhood matching games, but it’s just as fascinating in design.

“Sleep and Word Pairing”

In Sleep and Word Pairing,” researchers in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab are interested in investigating the effects of sleep on the cognitive integration process of speech.

Emotional integrations are quickly made but are not as durable over time, so this study is looking to see if sleep can act as a protectorate of these cognitive integrations due to prior research suggesting that sleep enhances emotional integration.

“It’s been previously shown that emotional integration has been more easily formed compared to neutral integration,” researcher Emily Czeisler, MCAS `17, said. “So the study is looking at that in terms of cognition as well as sleep.”

The design of the study is set up in two parts that each take place in one of the labs at BC. Participants will come in either in the morning or the evening for their 30-minute sessions depending on their sleep delay versus wake delay.

“The participants will then do a couple of pen and paper tasks and then view a series of word pairs so that we can measure individual differences about their different habits, and then they will also have a computer task,” Czeisler said of the design of the experiment. “During the second session, they will do some more pen and paper tasks to assess more individual differences, and then another computer task as well.”

Especially during the rush of midterms, this study seems to serve as a reminder that extra sleep may actually help more than that 2:00 a.m. Red Bull in achieving academically.

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor

October 24, 2016