From neuroscience to developmental psychology and beyond. (APA Style)
The Observer Magazine Articles
Keeping Up With the Crowd
The Observer, January 2019 - Cover Story
Flocks of starlings fill the skies above our heads and schools of fish paint the waters of our oceans and lakes with mesmerizing patterns. These collective motions make for some of the most iconic moments of animation in cinematic history – the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King and the bat swarms in Batman.
In the physical world, crowds are a fundamental part of everyday life: We pass through them, and become part of them, on our way to work, at school, and running errands.
Whether they are made up of pixels or pedestrians, however, the complex behaviors exhibited by crowds depend on a fairly simple set of psychological processes that make coordinated movement possible, APS Fellow William Warren of Brown University writes in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Similar to how physicists have yet to discover a “unified theory of everything” that might bridge the gap between their understanding of “very large” and “very small” elements of the universe, psychological scientists have yet to establish a model of collective behavior that successfully bridges the gap between the local behavior of individuals and the global behavior of the groups that contain them, Warren said.
“The problem is that people and animals are more complicated than particles,” he explained. “We have energy supplies on board, can make decisions, there are multiple principles on which we operate.”
Leveraging Learning Principles Online
The Observer, December 2018
Marathons push runners to their limits. To prepare, athletes run dozens of miles per week, eat carb-rich diets, and learn to listen to their bodies, spacing out training and recovery days to avoid running themselves into the ground.
Similarly, cognitive psychologists have shown that skill development works best when students engage incrementally and repeatedly with new materials across time. Much like a runner who prepares for a marathon by training just once a week, students who try to pass a class by cramming a week’s worth of readings and assignments into a single night, or even a few hours, may fall short of the finish line, says APS Past President Morton Ann Gernsbacher, Sir Frederic C. Bartlett Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That’s where Gernsbacher’s innovative series of online classes comes in.
“I really wanted to design a course that manifested the notion of distributed learning,” Gernsbacher said in an interview. “I wanted assignments to be ones that students had to process deeply.”
A 2010 meta-analysis of 50 study effects by the US Department of Education found that online learners performed modestly but consistently better than students in a traditional classroom setting. This boost isn’t due to the medium, but rather to online classes’ potential to capitalize on established principles of learning, Gernsbacher explained.
'Playing Games With Basic Research'
The Observer, September 2018
oday, doing homework means sitting down to fill out a worksheet, flipping through flash cards, or writing an essay. But what if all students had to do was plug in a controller and train their brains by playing games?
It may be an enticing idea, says APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Richard E. Mayer, but just because kids enjoy games more than conventional lesson plans doesn’t mean educational video games are the way to go; as the sign in his University of California, Santa Barbara, lab says, “Liking Is Not Learning.”
“The problem we have is there are many strong claims for the educational value of computer games, but they’re based on weak evidence,” said Mayer, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during his award address at the 2018 APS Annual Convention in San Francisco.
It all comes down to the issue of transfer, a classic concept that’s been at the foundation of both education and psychological science since the very start, he continued.
For more than 45 years, Mayer’s research has been motivated by a simple question: “How can we help people learn so they can apply what they have learned to new situations?”
In the case of video games, it’s not enough for Tetris just to teach players how to be the best at stacking the game’s colorful blocks at an increasingly demanding pace — those cognitive skills need to carry over into other contexts as well.
The Many Shapes of Applied Psychological Science
("The Restorative Role of Marine Life" and
"Safer Skies Through the Science of Pilot Selection")
The Observer, May/June 2018 - Cover Story
"There’s something mesmerizing about watching a school of fish or a strand of seaweed sway beneath the waves, and Deborah Cracknell, an honorary research fellow at Plymouth University and the European Centre for Environment & Human Health (University of Exeter Medical School) in the United Kingdom, has made it her job to find out why. After 12 years in the finance service industry, Cracknell returned to Plymouth University to pursue a degree in marine biology and microbiology. Upon graduating in 1998, she went on to work at the United Kingdom’s National Marine Aquarium (NMA), also in Plymouth, for 19 years.
In that time, Cracknell worked as a biologist and diving officer, an environmental manager, and the lead researcher for the aquarium. When the NMA sank an ex-Royal Naval frigate, the ex-HMS Scylla, in 2004 to create Europe’s first artificial reef off the coast of Plymouth, Cracknell was responsible for monitoring its progress across the decade that followed. Eventually a wrist injury prevented her from continuing with the more physically demanding aspects of her diving role, and Cracknell transitioned to coordinating the NMA’s research program for Plymouth University students."
'I Feel Your Pain': The Neuroscience of Empathy
The Observer, January 2018
“Studies of emotional contagion in animal models have allowed researchers to further examine the role of deep brain activity, which can be difficult to neurostimulate in humans. Keysers’ work with rats has found that these animals are more likely to freeze after watching another rat receive an electric shock if they themselves had been shocked in the past.
Inhibiting a region analogous to the ACC in the rats’ brains reduced their response to another rat’s distress, but not their fear of being shocked themselves, suggesting that the area deals specifically with socially triggered fear, Keysers said.
Claus Lamm, University of Vienna, investigates the processes that regulate firsthand pain and those that cause empathy for pain through numerous studies on the influence of painkillers.
In these experiments, participants who took a placebo “painkiller” reported lower pain ratings after receiving a shock than did those in the control group. When those same participants watched a confederate get shocked, they reported a similar drop in their perception of the actor’s pain.
“If you reduce people’s self-experienced pain, if you induce analgesia, that not only helps people to deal with their own pain, but it also reduces empathy for the pain of another person,” Lamm said.”
On the neural level, Lamm said, fMRI scans showed that people in the placebo group displayed lower levels of brain activity in the anterior insula and mid cingulate cortex in both cases."
Brains and Bacteria
The Observer, December 2018 - Cover Story
It’s tempting to tell yourself that you, or rather your brain, is the only driver behind the wheel when it comes to controlling your mind and body. According to emerging research on bacteria and our brains, however, we may actually have some pretty powerful passengers riding shotgun: the trillions of organisms that make up each of our microbiomes.
Microbiologists estimate that for every human gene in our bodies, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of microbial genes, and that there may be at least as many microbial cells in our bodies as human cells. Furthermore, while human DNA may only differ by about 0.1% from person to person, the DNA of our microbial partners can differ by roughly 50% between individuals.
From the bacteria that flourish on healthy human skin to microbiota that serve as a barrier to pathogens in adults and foster robust development in newborn children, microorganisms perform countless functions that make our lives possible. Of these, the 40,000 species of “human flora” in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract – which includes not just the stomach, but the mouth, esophagus, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, and colon – may be among the most influential, write research associates Leigh Smith (University of California, Davis) and Emily Wissel (Emory University) in an article forthcoming in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Our brains and the bacteria in our guts have a bidirectional, often mutually beneficial relationship unique to each individual, the authors explain. There is a staggering amount of diversity both in the bacteria we carry and in how our bodies react to them.
The Social Defense
The Observer, December 2018
On February 16, 1983, after years of severe drought, a series of nearly 200 fires now known as the Ash Wednesday bushfires swept through southeastern Australia. The wildfires displaced thousands of people, many of whom would later lose their homes, and resulted in nearly 100 deaths and more than $1 billion in property damage.
Of the many psychological hardships that the disaster caused survivors, one in particular interested APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Richard A. Bryant: the effect of being temporarily separated from a caregiver during a traumatic event as a child.
Psychological scientists have long known from studies of orphanages in areas such as Romania after World War II that enduring abuse and trauma as a child without parental support can inhibit a person’s ability to form secure relationships throughout their lifetime. The Ash Wednesday bushfires, however, took place largely in one day, separating kids from their parents nearly at random depending on whether they were at school when the evacuation order went out. This unfortunate chain of events offered researchers a unique opportunity to study attachment, said Bryant, a professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, during his Award Address at the 2018 APS Annual Convention in San Francisco.
More than 800 children were psychologically assessed after the Ash Wednesday bushfires. Twenty-eight years later, Bryant and colleagues surveyed 500 of those now-adults and found that those who were separated from their parents during the fire were significantly more likely than those who were not to have an avoidant, insecure attachment style, which in turn translated to higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Preparing Teachers for the Unexpected
The Observer, July/August 2018
A month into her first job at an elementary school, a newly minted teacher encountered a situation her master’s degree in education had never prepared her for: a 7-year-old girl who, seemingly at random, would get up out of her seat and start spinning in a corner of the classroom.
No one in any of her education classes had ever mentioned how to deal with a “spinner,” she told APS Fellow Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, and yet, when Willingham brought her predicament up with the other elementary school teachers he encountered through his work in educational psychology, they knew exactly the behavior she was talking about.
In general, up-and-coming teachers are receiving training that leaves them poorly prepared for unexpected experiences like this one in real classrooms, Willingham said during his APS-David Myers Distinguished Lecture on the Science and Craft of Teaching Psychological Science at the 2018 APS Annual Convention in San Francisco.
“They are going to encounter problems that no one told them they were going to encounter,” he said, “so what do they do at those moments when they have this novel problem?”
The WEIRD Science of Culture, Values, and Behavior
The Observer, April 2018
“Quick — your house is on fire. In one room, your mother. In the other, your spouse. You only have time to save one person — what do you do?
According to APS Fellow Hazel R. Markus, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, participants’ answers to this seemingly impossible thought experiment often depended on which country the burning house was built in.
“The Americans, in the large majority, say they would save their spouse because their spouse was their choice, and is, of course, the parent of their children,” said Markus, reporting a study by Tsui-feng Wu, Susan Cross, and Chih-Wen Wu.
The majority of Taiwanese respondents, on the other hand, said they would prioritize their mother’s life.
“It’s obvious from the ideas and practices of filial piety that pervade the society,” Markus explained. “Mothers give you life, you’re fundamentally connected to your mother, you begin with her. You have only one mother, you can get another spouse.”
Understanding the reasons for this cultural disconnect requires an awareness of how interdependent societies, which emphasize relationality and a pervading awareness and responsiveness to others, operate.
The IQ of Smart Fools
The Observer, December 2017
“During his APS William James award address at the 2017 APS Annual Convention in Boston, Sternberg said that universities may not be selecting the most career-ready applicants because “alphabet tests” such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and ACT primarily reflect IQ, a measure of abstract-analytical thinking, while neglecting the other skill sets recognized in his triarchic theory of intelligence. Practical thinking, creativity, and wisdom are just as, if not more, important than IQ when it comes to ensuring a longer and more productive future for society, Sternberg explained.
“It’s not just being smart. It’s using your smartness and knowledge toward a common good,” he said. “We should be developing active, concerned citizens and ethical leaders.”
Prior to the introduction of standardized tests in the 1960s, university admissions were primarily determined by family connections, Sternberg said. When James Bryant Conant, then-president of Harvard, first began using the SAT to assess applicants, it was intended to mark a shift toward meritocracy over nepotism. But that wasn’t a complete success.
“It turns out the tests were a way of laundering social class,” Sternberg said.
IQ scores have been found to correlate highly with applicants’ socioeconomic status, and colleges often select and reward people who may not have society’s best interests at heart, Sternberg said. The high IQ of a man who studies environmental law only to provide legal counsel for polluters might benefit his career as an individual, but it’s not necessarily doing much for the greater good, for example.”
Observation Blog Posts
How Mitochondria Keep Our Brains and Minds Moving
“If you know a single fact about mitochondria, it’s probably this: “The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.”
The energy produced by these organelles is essential for powering everything we do, and that includes using our brains to learn, think, and feel. In a review published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, scientists explore how these evolutionary tagalongs contribute to outcomes related to both mental health and mental illness.
“Given the multiple first-rate jobs that mitochondria do in the nervous system, it is hardly accidental that their malfunctioning has been associated with virtually every mental or neurological affliction on earth,” wrote researchers Peter Kramer and Paola Bressan of the Università di Padova in Italy. This includes everything from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, anxiety, and depression to conditions like autism and Down syndrome, the pair wrote.
Mitochondria generate energy within our body’s cells in the forms of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and heat by consuming glucose from the food we eat and oxygen from the air we breathe. Throughout this process, they also create waste products like carbon dioxide, water, and free radicals, corrosive chemicals that can degrade our cells as well as the mitochondria themselves.”
Intuition May Overpower Probability in Decision Making
“This is it, Coach, it’s all on the line: You’re on your own 36-yard line, it’s fourth down, and you have 4 yards to go. There are just minutes left in the big game. What do you do to secure your lead – punt or “go for it”?
A New York Times analysis of thousands of football plays over nearly 20 years found that teams are 9% more likely to win if they run the ball on the 4th down, but research in Psychological Science suggests that, even when made aware of this statistical edge, over half of people choose to punt anyway.
In a series on online studies featuring marble lotteries, prize envelopes, digital blackjack, and football plays, researchers found that 30% to just over 50% of participants with faulty intuitions “acquiesced,” acting on beliefs they knew to be irrational. These findings suggest that simply detecting an error in judgment often isn’t enough to alter our behavior.
“People can be consciously aware that they are making an error when they make it,” said coauthor Daniel Walco, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago. “If the intuition springs immediately to mind and is intuitively compelling, then it may continue to feel subjectively true even if people can identify that it is objectively false.””