Dr. Kristy vanMarle studies the mathematical abilities of infants and toddlers, seeking new insights into how the human brain develops, formats, and represents concepts of quantity. Basic cognitive quantifying abilities progress into ideas of number, time, and space, and are crucial to the everyday tasks that our adult brains perform. “Babies,” Dr. vanMarle tells SyndicateMizzou, “give you a window into what kind of initial, foundational core [mathematical] capacities are there, how they get elaborated, and what kinds of experiences are necessary for different capacities to come online.”
Ask Bruce Bartholow about his current research projects, and the associate professor of psychology at MU will likely direct your attention to the large whiteboard mounted on his office wall. Crowded with names of collaborators and topics ranging from alcohol and race bias to video games and aggression, this board reveals the breadth of Bartholow’s research.
Few people see much in common between candy and cocaine, aside from their identical first letters. Not so for Matt Will, Assistant Professor of Psychology. Will’s current research equates our cravings for fatty, high calorie foods with serious drug abuse.
A rainbow of feathers floats upward like a psychedelic butterfly. Fingers of color, violet and lime green, seem to flow outward from the tips of the wings. If you didn’t know better, you might assume it is a work of art. Beyond their beauty, for Shawn Christ these images taken at MU’s new Brain Imaging Center reveal the brain’s activity and connections. In his role as Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of MU’s Clinical Neuropsychology Laboratory, Christ studies how the relationship between the brain and behavior changes as we develop. Christ chose a career in psychology because it would combine two passions— working with kids and solving puzzles.
We began this interview with the intent of focusing, as we usually do, on one person’s research. However, this query soon became—like the collaborative work it highlights—a joint project involving James R. Koller and Karen Weston of the Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology in the College of Education, two individuals working together to “think outside the box” by creating the Center for the Advancement of Mental Health Practices in the Schools, now affectionately called “the Center” by its members. “The Center was created in response to the rising number of students in need of mental health services today,” states its homepage. It was initiated “as a paradigm shift that recognizes prevention as a fundamental element in supporting our nation’s youth facing developmental challenges, psycho-social issues, and environmental stressors within the school system and community . . . with the whole thrust being a paradigmatic shift from mental illness to mental health.” Of course, “you’re never going to get away from mental illness,” admits Koller, “but instead of waiting until pathology occurs, the question posed to me was how we can do something different. How can we better prepare consumers at all levels to be better informed so that we can create a positive learning environment for each learner and increase her or his self-concept, while academic learning flourishes?”
How much do infants know about the world in which they live? At what age do humans begin to develop an understanding of object permanence and of the reality that people act in response to different things around them? These are the kinds of questions Yuyan Luo, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, seeks to answer. In addition to teaching cognition development courses—from infancy to toddler—she runs the Infant Cognition Lab, which tests psychological and biological knowledge development through a series of lab experiments. Now in its second year of operation, the lab conducts experiments with participants as young as two and one-half months old.
Professor David Jonassen humbly sidesteps the grander importance of his research, yet his work would appear to have very serious and broad-reaching implications for educational systems and seems to call out for educational reform. As a professor in the area of educational psychology, Jonassen’s past research has focused on designing constructivist learning environments, cognitive tools for learning (Mindtools), cognitive modeling/task analysis, and systems dynamics/modeling. Most recently, his attention has moved toward issues of problem-solving. To this end, he has begun working in the context of engineering education for obvious reasons—because engineering students are specifically trained (and will be eventually hired) to solve problems. The types of problems engineers encounter on the job, like those people encounter in everyday life, are relatively “ill-structured” ones—that is, they don’t necessarily have a correct solution, a well-defined method for finding a solution, or even well-established criteria for what determines a successful solution.
Dr. vanMarle discusses the origins of our quantifying abilities with regard to our evolutionary history, and the connection between our own abilities and those of other species. The implication is that these abilities stem from a time millions of years ago when humans and other animals shared an ancestor.
There are multiple studies ongoing in the Developmental Cognition lab. In this video, Dr. vanMarle explains two of the most significant studies. The first is the “ratio cross-modal study,” which examines “how abstract” babies representations of quantities are and how well they can match ratios from auditory to visual stimuli. The second is the “rate learning study,” which examines babies’ sensitivity to rate information by matching auditory tones with visual dot arrays across many trials.
Dr. vanMarle works with students both in the laboratory and in the classroom. Her work in the classroom helps “keep her excited about the research,” she tells us, and her students in the lab provide important feedback and offer fresh perspectives that contribute greatly to the research.
The results of Dr. vanMarle and her team’s research give us new insight into how we learn math. These insights have important implications for how we teach math in the classroom, and Dr vanMarle is optimistic about the future of her research and improvements in future math education.
In a third study, the lab examines babies’ ability to develop expectations about the physical constrains of objects by observing sand poured into different containers. Dr. vanMarle also discusses a study that she hopes to do that uses the lab’s unique data collection over time to study how quantifying abilities change with age.
Dr. vanMarle’s work in the Developmental Cognition lab uses a technique of measuring babies’ “looking time” in order to gauge their visual attention. Researchers then examine changes in visual attention over multiple trials in order to analyze babies’ ability to discriminate between stimuli. Analyzing the data gathered from this process is the key to the lab’s insights into developmental cognition and beyond.
Dr. vanMarle explains some of the philosophical questions related to studying math abilities in babies. She also describes the connection between her work and the field of cognitive science, and the implications of our new understandings.
Dr. Kristy vanMarle tells Syndicate Mizzou about her entrance into developmental cognition, and her early experience in lab research with infants.
Bartholow’s research has also explored how media such as video games affect aggressive behavior. One such project revealed the desensitizing effect of violent video games.
Originally a music major, Bartholow turned to social psychology after realizing his desire to learn “what makes people tick.”
Bartholow describes two current projects involving higher-order cognitive control. One, funded by the National Science Foundation, explores how individual differences in executive functioning affect the expression of racial bias, while the other explores alcohol’s effects on higher-order cognitive processes.
Bartholow explains how his research and teaching intersect. In a senior-level course on research methods, for example, he discusses the procedures used in his own lab. Students are “integral to everything” in his working group.
Bartholow describes his recent research project, funded by the University of Missouri Research Board, which measures the effects of alcohol consumption on the expression of racial bias in laboratory tasks.
The project on alcohol and race bias led Bartholow to explore the question of why alcohol reduces the brain’s response to errors. He found that alcohol reduces negative affect, increasing the subjects’ positive feelings and thus causing them to care less about their classification errors.
Bartholow explains that his research extends beyond an exploration of alcohol and its effects on social behaviors: it tells us about how the brain works.
Will describes a recent project exploring the relationship between binge-eating and increased food palatability. Genetics plays a large role in our craving for high-calorie food.
Binge eating, it turns out, is parallel to exercise addiction like the “runner’s high." Through his collaboration in exercise physiology, Will began looking at exercise as a treatment plan for both drug and food addictions.
Will describes a recent collaboration with a neurologist, in which they studied food intake during pregnancy and analyzed its affects on the later onset of autism in baby mice. Though the project initially seemed disconnected from his other initiatives, Will notes that collaborative work “gives you more inspiration for your own project.”
Will describes his research on food addiction, explaining “it’s becoming very commonplace and accepted that food is addictive, and that we need to study it just like we study drugs of abuse.”
Will describes the fundamental focus of his research, the neurochemical roots of food addiction. His methods involve mimicking a natural process to examine the effects of feel-good chemicals, naturally present in the brain, on the dietary habits of rats.
Shawn Christ studies the way the brain develops and the relationship between brain and behavior. “I really think that if you’re going to understand that, you can’t just study typical development,” he says. “You can’t just study what happens when everything goes right, you also have to study what happens when things go wrong.”
The majority of Christ’s work focuses on the brain’s inferior frontal gyrus. That’s the part of the brain involved in most higher-level abilities: working memory, strategy use, inhibitory control, and especially keeping track of the to-do list for any sort of task.
In college, Christ went from architecture to psychology. He loved working with kids, and he loved to “figure things out.” He was eventually drawn to doing psychological research involving children with disabilities.
Christ uses a lot of technology, including an eye tracker, projections, and functional and structural MRIs, to figure out why the brain works the way it does. All of these tools have their advantages and disadvantages.
Up until now, most work with autism has been behavioral. Functional MRI opens up a whole new way of studying learning disabilities. “Now we’re looking directly at the brain,” Christ says.
Most of Jim Koller’s past research and practice as a licensed psychologist was directed toward pathology, that is, “abnormal behavior.” But he became disillusioned with the then-current state of affairs, realizing that “we have to do something different to stop the escalating incidence of mental illness vis-à-vis mental health problems in the country.” With the cooperation of the Missouri state legislature and the Department of Mental Health, the Center for the Advancement of Mental Health Practices in the Schools was conceived—“with the whole thrust being a paradigmatic shift from mental illness to mental health.”
At the first and only sanctioned online-degree program with a focus on mental health issues in schools in the country, students can take individual courses based on their unique needs through continuing education, and even earn a degree at the Masters or Education Specialist level. Recognized as a national model, the Center’s online program focuses on evidence-based practice and on current, practical application-driven principles and tested theories; people working in the field can take coursework in areas with which they are being confronted professionally.
All of the subjects in Luo’s experiments are volunteered by their parents. Luo talks about research she hopes to pursue in her future work.
In addition to running the Infant Cognition Lab, Luo also teaches cognition development courses at MU, ranging from infancy to toddler psychological and biological knowledge development.
Yuyan Luo uses “looking-time studies” to learn how much infants understand about the world around them. In this lab video, the top half of the frame will reveal what the infant is shown, whereas the bottom half reveals the infant’s reaction.
Luo furthers her research about infant psychological understanding by conducting similar experiments with non-human agents.
Luo describes her current research project, which focuses on determining infants’ knowledge of psychological reasoning. Using the looking-time method, she is testing infants as young as three-months old to see if they understand the concept of object preference.
Luo runs the Infant Cognition Lab at MU, in its second year of existence. Luo describes some of the experiments she began in graduate school concerning transparency and object permanence.
Psychologist Yuyan Luo explains how she first became interested in studying infant cognition and the types of “looking-time studies” she uses to study how much infants understand about object permanence.
Having a Ph.D. in psychology has aided Thorson in observing and understanding people and how they respond to messages, and her research program calls upon her to be a “jack-of-all-trades.” She spent a lot of her early years in advertising research, looking at people’s responses to ads and figuring out what kinds of visual images or auditory stimuli grabs and holds their attention.
Kerns gives an introduction to his research on cognitive processes and the brain.
Kerns discusses the technology used in his research to view brain activity.
Kerns discusses activity in various brain regions as a result of different cognitive process.
Kerns discusses more on cognitive control.
Kerns discusses how activity in different parts of brain can be observed in the lab.
How cognitive control processes work. What scholars know about the human brain.
How cognitive control processes work. What scholars know about the human brain.
Kerns continues to give an overview of his research.
Kerns discusses the characteristics of the different stages of schizophrenia.
Collaborating with Mark Flinn (psychology and anthropology) and David Geary (psychology) on how and why human brains developed as they did.