The Middlebury Campus

Science Spotlight: Psychology Department

By Will Henriques

Of any of the isolated silos in the world of academia disciplines that seem to have little overlap — the natural and physical sciences and the social sciences seem quite disparate. One gave us “Team of Rivals” and the study of constitutional law and the other gave us the title: “Intrahippocampal Infusions of K-ATP Channel Modulators Influence Spontaneous Alternation Performance: Relationships to Acetylcholine Release in the Hippocampus.”

One tends to be qualitative. The other is strictly quantitative. One studies political structures and the history of countries. The other studies the molecular interactions within various cell systems.

But perhaps the metaphor of the silo is inaccurate. In fact the dividing walls between the social sciences and the sciences are dissolving, thanks in part to the field of psychology.

Psychology is the link between the hard science of physics, chemistry and biology, and the more humanistic fields of political science, economics, history and even literature.

“If you think about what we’re learning about the brain, and how our knowledge of the brain informs our understanding of behavior, they’re integrally connected. [Understanding the brain], that’s a really important way to understand human behavior, human beliefs, human values,” said Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Psychology Department Barbara Hofer.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Mark Stefani focuses on the biological side of the brain.

He studies the neurobiology of memory and cognition, focusing particularly on executive functioning — our working memory, our ability to allocate our attention to specific stimuli, our ability to shift from task to task as our needs and goals change (known as cognitive flexibility) and our ability to inhibit behaviors that are counterproductive.
Stefani is not just studying the neurobiology of healthy individuals, “but also the executive cognitive functions as they are impaired in psychiatric conditions. So in our lab, we’re interested in schizophrenia, which is very much associated with impaired executive function,” said Stefani.

“We use rats as a model organism and induce cognitive problems that are like those in schizophrenia and then we look for changes in the brain, and we look for ways to reverse those impairments.”

By using rats as model organisms, Stefani hopes to understand the mechanism by which certain compounds induce psychotic side-effects, and with that knowledge, begin exploring compounds that could potentially reduce the imbalances in the human brain that create psychosis and cognitive problems.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Kimery Levering recently graduated from Binghamton University with a Ph.D in Cognitive Psychology. Her research focuses on the organization of mental concepts rather than the biology of the brain, but she pointed out that the distinction merely reflects two different levels of analysis.

“We go through the world experiencing a lot of things: a lot of objects, a lot of people, a lot of ideas,” Levering said. “What I study is how you take all of that information and abstract from it, or boil it down into useful and meaningful concepts. And then I’m interested in how we use those concepts and apply them to future situations.”

Levering explained the link between the mind and the brain, and its potential in the field of psychology.

“There’s an important connection to neuroscience in the study of how we organize information,” she said. “In trying to figure out mental processes and representations (cognitive psychology) and how they match up with the biology of the brain, I believe the field of concept learning is an important piece of the puzzle. Cognitive psychologists study how our mental representations are organized. Neuroscientists study how the brain is organized. At some point, the intersection between them is where a lot of action will be.”

The interface between the biology of the brain and the structure of the mind is integral to understanding how an individual functions. But an individual never functions independently of the society in which they live. That’s where the research of Associate Professor of Psychology Carlos Velez-Blasini comes into play. He examines social norms and how they influence an individual. His research has focused on the College’s population, and he recently published an article exploring the social norms related to the hook-up culture that permeates campus.

“We’ve examined the relationship between those normative influences — what we think people are doing, that’s what we call social norms — and behavior,” Velez said. “In other words, how does our perception of what others do and whether they approve of it or not and to what extent people engage in that behavior because they think everybody else is doing it influence an individuals decision to engage in a behavior. We break down the behavior by different levels of the sexual behavior. We look at sexual behavior that is relatively less intimate and we look at behavior that is more intimate, and try to see to what extent people’s behavior is affected by what they think others are doing.”

Hofer examines the psychology of the individual from a different perspective. She studies the beliefs individuals have about knowledge and the development of how people think. She’s been working under a grant from the National Science Foundation for the last four years, studying the beliefs that middle school and high school students have about knowledge and knowing, using both quantitative and qualitative methodology.

Hofer has also been studying emerging adults college students and how technology has changed their relationship to their parents and how that has affected development.

“I’m particularly interested in how   the rise of technology, with cell phones, texting and email, has put parents in a more prominent role during this period of life than they have had in the past and how frequent communication might be impeding autonomy and self-regulation,” she said.

Hofer’s work  — and most of the work conducted in the psychology department — involves a team of undergraduate research assistants, who have co-presented findings at conferences and co-authored articles and book chapters.

Moving through the hierarchy of psychological research — from brain function to mind structure to individual behavior to social phenomenon — the connection between Abraham Lincoln and the relationships to acetylcholine release in the hippocampus begin to emerge. In some ways, psychology could be viewed as the quintessential liberal arts discipline, because it forges that link.

As Hofer said, “We bridge both those areas. [In fact], I think one of the most exciting aspects of studying psychology is that it’s both a social science and a natural science and that’s somewhat unusual among all the other disciplines in the College. We have courses that cover both sides of that, courses that integrate both sides of that, and we have faculty that do research across the spectrum of the social sciences and the natural sciences. “

Leave a Comment