Face Study and Social Value Learning




Professor, Department Chair; Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience

Project Summary

It is my dream to work in applied psychology. Interning at the Thompson-Shill lab confirmed my love for social science inquiry, and gave me a taste of how to conduct research effectively. It was a delightful experience.

The lab focuses on human cognitive processes, in particular how we combine concepts and how these higher-order faculties relate to basic sensorimotor ones. I was involved with two projects within this larger theme.

The first project, a behavioral study, examines the way in which we make sense of action content in sentences. Participants for the study made judgements about motion-related sentences whilst performing random physical motions. We predict that the physical motions would interfere with motion-sentence processing: doing both tasks would worsen performance on the sentence judgements relative to performance on the sentence judgments alone. We further hypothesize that this motor interference increases as the action-sentences are more abstract; for example, we predict greater interference when making sense of “He grasped a ball” than “He grasped the idea”, as “grasp” is used literally in the former and metaphorically in the latter sentence. My primary responsibility here was to run participants, an empowering opportunity to interact with others in a professional context and produce real-world data. I am also grateful to have learned about behavioral data processing through my involvement.

The second project introduced me to earlier stages of research. I came to better understand the strategies of experimental design and its collaborative nature; I created visual stimuli on inventive software applications. The study examines social perception: what attributes of others we pay attention to and how this awareness influences our social interactions. To do so, we will train participants to associate differential generosity values to human faces in a simulated two-player zero-sum game. We plan to approximate learning of these abstract values using fMRI signals from face and value-recognizing areas of the brain. Our goal is to dissociate neurological responses to the visual dimension of faces and those to their abstract features; ultimately, we hope to demonstrate that the two are functionally connected.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of my experience was the lab environment. Whilst receiving career-relevant training, I was surrounded by interesting projects, dedicated mentors, and positive, can-do attitudes. It’s also remarkable having access to all the resources that make research possible: space, computers, capable people who work together, and all the time in the world. Overall, the experience has inspired me; I have fresh insights and more targeted career goals. These aspirations guide and energize my everyday pursuits.