Tuesday, February 23, 2010

“It’s alive!”: A social scientist discovers physiology

I am a social psychology PhD student, and proud of it. I love my research – it’s loads of fun and I’m generally not hampered by a lot of the constraints that students in other areas of psych tend to face. For me, no specialized equipment required; paper and pencil are my weapons of choice. No crash course in computer programming at the start of my PhD: my first study (N=120) was run in the refectory area on campus. In about an hour and a half.

Yep, I was leading the methodological good life. Until I realized that my research questions aren’t totally answered by self-report measurements. You see, I study the effects of global threats on intergroup relations. A main problem of threat is that sometimes it’s so threatening that people just switch off and deny that it’s there. I’m beginning to find strange patterns in my data where sometimes people in my low threat condition report being just as threatened as people in my high threat condition.

So how to deal with this problem? I decided I needed to a radical new approach. I needed to tackle this problem head (and body) on. In short, I needed…physiological measures. A few weeks on from this decision and I’ve entered a turbulent world full of heart rate, skin conductance, startle eyeblink, and facial electromyography. I won’t lie, approaching a whole new methodology in my final year of data collection is a big step, and is more than a little threatening in its own right. But it’s also liberating and exciting and opens up a whole new avenue of potential research questions.

The best lesson I’ve learned during this process is a simple one. No one methodology is infallible; a research question needs to be approached from multiple angles to really get a full picture of the human experience. A pretty basic principle, I know, but often it’s easy to get stuck in a methodological rut. We get such a short time to really immerse ourselves in a PhD topic that when we find something that works, we often stick with it. I’ll update everyone on how my personal quest for methodological rigor goes…

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Friday, February 19, 2010

if coffee == TRUE { output = output + 1 }

It kinda feels like I only need two resources to survive while I’m doing my PhD - caffeine, preferably in coffee form; and data, which come in many different forms. So I’m working on a new law, kinda like the laws that govern our universe. But so far my law is far more simple than thermodynamics: more caffeine results in more output.

Recently I’ve been dealing with data collected from an experiment where I record what people are doing with their eyes during an experiment. Every 0.002 seconds I sample X and Y co-ordinates of where someone is looking on a screen. Given that the experiment goes for about 20 minutes, I’m collecting over one million pieces of data per participant!

Obviously there’s not enough coffee in the world to make anyone go through each of those data points one by one, so I automate all of my analyses. But automation takes a lot of hours of programming, and therefore a lot of cups of coffee. When programming there is always a solution to any problem, error or bug that arises, and if you’re like me you have to keep working at it until you solve it.

So - I’ll share some data that I’ve managed to process and graph (more caffeine results in more output). Each line on the graphs below represents one eye movement. People were meant to be looking around the four corners of a box, while I flashed targets inside and outside the box. The graphs are actually the same, but the one on the top is the raw data, whereas the graph on the bottom has all the “cheat” eye movements (where the participant looked directly at the target) removed. For more detail, click the graphs.

These graphs represent roughly about two months of my life, or about 120 cups of coffee! The time it took to remove those few lines alone took about 20 hours of work, or four cups of coffee. But like I said before, the more coffee I drink, the more output I create - and now using the program I have written I can process the same amount of data as graphed above in just a few clicks of my mouse.

For anyone planning on doing research I recommend testing out my law, more caffeine equals more output. I guess it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work for you - just come up with your own as long as it ends with “equals more output”!

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Facing the Reality of Research

If all goes to plan, this blog post will hopefully serve two functions. First, I hope to introduce you to what I consider to be a rather cool illusion related to face perception. Second, it will serve as a forum for me to vent my frustration at having recently discovered a research idea of mine has already been published in a prestigious journal.

In my spare time of late I’ve been perusing the face perception literature. It has been well documented that presenting a face upside-down dramatically affects its recognition. So much so that you may even mistake the identity of the image for someone else. You may have experienced this for yourself perhaps when looking at a paper that someone else is reading from across the table. Initially the person on the front cover is difficult to recognise. “Who is that you think? Is that that creature from Lord of the Rings?” Upon snatching the paper from your friend and reorienting the image you realise you were mistaken and it is in fact Tony Abbott.

Without going into too much detail, this effect is thought to be the result of psychological processes involved in face perception that are tuned specifically to upright faces. A slightly more striking illusion that is thought to illustrate these same cognitive processes is the “Thatcher illusion”. The Thatcher illusion shows that it is difficult to detect local feature changes in an upside down face, despite identical changes being blindly obvious in an upright face. So what on earth does that mean? I’ll let the illustration below do the explaining.

The first image is of my adolescent crush Elisha Cuthbert. The second image is the same as the first except the eyes and the mouth have been inverted. Looks grotesque yes? The last image is one of the first two images upside-down, any guesses which one it is? The animation below should reveal the answer for you.

The illusion itself has been well documented. Where I thought I stumbled across something of interest was in looking at the angle of rotation at which the image appears to change from an “intact” face to a deformed image. Of those I’ve shown this to, some report a gradual change from one image to the other while others have report a sudden switch. Personally my perception of the image seems to flip when the rotation reaches a critical angle just beyond 90 degrees.
Alas, it would seem that this line of thought has already been investigated and I must return to the drawing board...

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Friday, February 12, 2010

Exposing yourself as a student

Before the complaints come rolling in, the title of this blog post doesn't refer to the socially unacceptable activities that are often attributed to men in raincoats, rather it refers to the practice of getting one's name out there and becoming known within the department.

The importance of exposing oneself throughout your academic career is something that is only appreciated when you see the result of this exposure. This result can be very satisfying, as people will typically look at you in a very different way after you have put some serious effort into exposing yourself. Obviously exposing oneself comes with risks, but I am of the belief that these risks are far outweighed by the long-term benefits. I think that many students don’t expose themselves enough, so I thought I’d offer some thoughts on how best to go about exposing yourself:

Exposing yourself is really quite simple, but requires a bit of courage. It is all about getting involved in the department and the research area in which you contribute. Whether this be at a low level by introducing yourself to the senior academics that you may come into contact with (your lecturers), or at a high level by presenting your work at conferences where you will no doubt rub shoulders with the great minds in your field, exposing yourself is all about creating a presence and making yourself known.

I know of undergraduate students that are exposing themselves already, even without having reached postgraduate study. Whether it be by doing research assistant work for any number of academics, or acting as student representatives (and sitting on committees with senior academics), these practices get you known as a ‘somebody’ in the department. Some students even have the courage to attend conferences, even without having work to present. The more of this you do, the more you come to understand what being an academic involves, and the more opportunities may open up.

As a final point, and hopefully to drive home the importance of exposing yourself throughout your academic career, I once heard a senior academic frame the benefits of exposing oneself in this way:

“If you were looking to hire a new researcher and had two resumes on your desk which were identical in every way, but you knew one of the applicants (and liked them), which applicant would you hire?”

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Friday, February 5, 2010

Getting to Know You.

If you are at all familiar with the PhD comics, then you’ll know that free food is the life-force of all post-grad students. Thus, a disproportionate amount of time is spent searching for, and acquiring, free food. Today was no exception.

First semester is fast approaching and today the psychology school hosted an Honours open day. School functions are always catered so, naturally, I inquired as to what this Honours open day was all about. Essentially, fourth-years have to submit their preferences for supervisors this Friday. It has been the case (certainly in my experience) that students only know the academics/potential supervisors that have taught them in the past. Students aren’t typically aware of just how many academics there actually are because a lot of them don’t teach. Today’s open day was designed to give students an opportunity to actually meet potential supervisors, including the ones they’d never heard of before!

Now, I’m no supervisor by any means (I’m not even a PhD student!) but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to grab complimentary grub so I came along for the ride. In my opinion the open day was a great success. Everywhere I looked small gaggles of fresh-faced Honours students were gathering around prophetic academics. The academics themselves seemed to enjoy it as much as the students. I mean, what researcher wouldn’t enjoy talking about their work to people who might happen to think it’s amazing, let alone care? Subsequently, the academics were all highly animated, pitching their work and fighting for students’ interest against other academics with extravagant hand gestures, flashy brochures, and glitzy, Web 2.0-esque presentations.

If this post was to have any sort of message it would be this. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have an opportunity such as an Honours open day when considering my supervisor preferences, and I wouldn’t be surprised if students at other universities and schools were missing out on this opportunity too. So I’d put to upcoming Honours students (in any discipline) that you should really try and get to know the academics in your school. Academics are a highly agreeable bunch and you’ll probably find one that matches your research interests and your personality.

So, a successful morning AND I got free food. Winner in my opinion.

- Morgan
Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au