In their Own Words: Faculty on their Research
Most of us understand, on some level, that our unique ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving are related to the mechanics of our individual brains. Yet the majority of neuroscience research has focused on group averages—a way of sketching “typical” patterns of brain functioning. Professor Chantel Prat argues that this approach has moved the field forward in the areas where people don’t vary as much, like sensorimotor processing, but has prevented us from fulling understanding how differences in brain functioning shape the way we each understand the world. For example, though almost every textbook will tell you that language is a left-hemisphere function, Prat’s research has shown that there is dramatic variability in the extent to which the right hemisphere contributes critically to language, and that this variability drives the way people make inferences or understand the “big picture” when reading. In her debut trade book, The Neuroscience of You, Prat describes some of the fundamental differences in brain design, from laterality to neurochemistry, and how they can scale up to produce differences in the way people come to understand the world and operate in it. Complete with take-at-home quizzes, Prat helps the reader to better understand what their individual quirks might tell them about how their own brains work.
Across languages and cultures, metaphors are commonly used to describe abstract concepts. Such metaphors are not just used for communicating, they also influence the way we think and make abstract concepts more tangible. Although metaphors are a powerful tool for learning, metaphorical language can also be difficult for young children to understand because of their tendency to focus on the literal meaning of words. In one line of work in the Language, Cognition, and Development Lab, we are exploring how different language learning strategies in monolingual and bilingual children influence their understanding of metaphorical language. In a second line of work, we are exploring how thinking about time in terms of space (e.g., using calendars and timelines, phrases like "looking forward to warmer weather") help support children's memory for the order of events. Taken together, our research aims to provide new insights into how we can harness the power of metaphor to support learning.
Professor Kevin King and collaborators have been studying how well our backwards explanations of our risky behavior (like impulsive behaviors, heavy drinking, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors) explain our foward experiences of them. By sending surveys to research participants’ cell phones many times per day, he and his colleagues can track what people are thinking, feeling, and doing in nearly real time. Their research suggests that although people do tend to engage in (some) more risky behaviors when they are feeling bad, people who say they do risky things because they are feeling bad aren’t any more likely to take risks than people who don’t. This research, led by doctoral students Madison Feil and Kevin Kuehn, and postdoctoral scholar Jonas Dora, suggests that factors other than people’s lived experiences can shape the narratives we construct about our lives.
Feil, M., Halvorson, M., Lengua, L., & King, K. M. (2020). A state model of negative urgency: Do momentary reports of emotional impulsivity reflect global self-report?. Journal of research in personality, 86, 103942.
Dora, J., Piccirillo, M., Foster, K. T., Arbeau, K., Armeli, S., Auriacombe, M., ... & King, K. (2022). The daily association between affect and alcohol use: A meta-analysis of individual participant data. PsyArXiV.
Kuehn, K. S., Dora, J., Harned, M. S., Foster, K. T., Song, F., Smith, M. R., & King, K. M. (2022). A meta-analysis on the affect regulation function of real-time self-injurious thoughts and behaviours. Nature Human Behaviour, 1-11.
UW Behavioral Research Center for HIV (BIRCH) (Dr. Jane Simoni, Director)
The UW Behavioral Research Center for HIV (BIRCH) is a developmental Center funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), providing infrastructure and support for high-impact science on HIV and mental health by offering technical assistance, training, pilot funding, and mentorship to the next generation of HIV researchers. The Center aims to catalyze research that integrates mental health and HIV prevention and care, guided by communities and practitioners seeking to end the epidemic, and also strives to apply the science of dissemination and implementation to bring such interventions to scale. One pilot project that the Center funds through its Synergistic Pilot AIDS Research Center (SPARC) Awards is being conducted by Dr. Jessica Blayney, a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors in the Dept. of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Dr. Blayney focuses her research on working directly with adolescents to ensure their voices are heard and make HIV prevention more accessible. Another pilot grant awardee is Dr. Keshet Ronen, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Global Health. Dr. Ronen received the Community-Centered Pilot AIDS Research Center (C-PARC) award, and will develop patient-centered perinatal mental health services in Kenya to develop holistic care practices centered on communities that are most impacted by the HIV epidemic.
In recent decades, police have become increasingly militarized. While police violence disproportionately affects Black and Native Americans, the relationship between racial prejudice and police militarization remained unexplored. Assistant Professor Tyler Jimenez and his collaborators examined this relationship in their forthcoming article in Psychological Science. Among a nationally representative sample of White Americans, it was shown that people higher in prejudice expressed greater support for the militarization of police. Further, using regional prejudice data from Project Implicit and policing data from the Department of Defense, police departments in states higher in prejudice were shown to acquire greater amounts of surplus military equipment–such as semi-automatic weapons and armored vehicles–for use in everyday policing. In these studies, prejudice against Black and Native Americans was examined, with both shown to be predictive of police militarization. This paper is one of the first to demonstrate that prejudice against Native Americans is associated with criminal justice attitudes and institutional practices, and that police militarization may be motivated by racial prejudice.
Dr. Jeansok Kim
How the brain faces fear in nature
Fear is an integral part of the brain’s defense mechanism that evolved to protect animals and humans from predation and other ecological threats. Hence, it is logical to study fear from the perspective of antipredator-survival behaviors and circuits by sampling a range of threatening situations that organisms are likely to encounter in the wild. Professor Jeansok Kim and his collaborators at the UW have developed a realistic way to study fear in laboratory rats and mice that closely simulates risky conditions in the wild, namely an ‘approach food-avoid predator’ conflict paradigm. By investigating animals foraging for food in the presence of terrestrial and aerial predatory agents (e.g., a LEGO robot, a taxidermy weasel, a life-like model owl) the KimLab is challenging conventional fear conditioning paradigms and has enriched our understanding of the natural structure and brain mechanisms of fear in both animals and humans. More information can be found on the KimLab website: http://faculty.washington.edu/jeansokk/index.html
My recent research has focused on using cognitive principles to improve science communication. My research demonstrates that members of public can understand fairly complex scientific issues, as long as the information is presented in a way that is compatible with how they think about the issue (aka their “mental model” of the situation) and how they process information (e.g. decision goals). For instance explanations of the mechanism by which mRNA vaccines create immunity increase willingness to vaccinate among the hesitant. Similarly, explanations of the long delay between carbon reduction and global cooling increases support for climate friendly policies, even among conservatives. This research suggests that contrary to the often cited communication principle “less is more”, more can be more. People can understand and need accurate and complete scientific information to make informed decisions for themselves and others.