Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Post more, you say? All right then!

Uh oh, somebody asked about an aspect of my research in the comments! That's all it takes for me to ramble on for an hour.

Aside: A few months ago, Rebecca called at the last minute and asked if we would like to go see Josh Ritter in concert in Milford (home of our infamous beach walk). No idea why Josh was playing a 6pm gig at a tiny little venue in a tiny little Connecticut town, but we had seen him in NYC previously and loved it, so Ayelet and I agreed to accompany her. The gig itself was awesome in the way only a tiny-venue small-town gig can be, and afterwards we hung around outside until Josh and bandmates came out to sign autographs. We strategically waited until the queue had dispersed, and lo and behold, Josh came over to chat to us.

"What do you do?" he asked me. So I told him. "Oh wow, my parents are both neuroscientists.... what kind of work do you do?" he asked. Wrong question! The lucky man got to hear a monologue about attention-emotion interactions as they related to motivationally-relevant stimuli for quite some time. Have to say he looked interested, though. (Although possibly drunk). He said it sounded very cool and gave me a big ol' hug and a kiss on the hand (just for doing such awesome research, I guess!)

Anyway, so attentional bias in parents. Attentional bias to a stimulus just means that that particular class of stimulus attracts your attention, and is difficult to disengage attention from. Interesting research has shown, for example, that very anxious people show a much stronger attentional bias to threat than non-anxious people. When faced with a threatening image (in the lab they use angry faces or scary animals - in the real world it could be your boss!) these people notice it more quickly than others and have trouble tearing their attention away in order to do something else. Also, people struggling with a substance dependence show attentional bias to their drug of choice. An alcoholic, for example, has difficulty not paying attention to a bottle of booze when it's in sight (or they know it is there). This is theorized to be one of the reasons that it is so hard to stop using drugs: your brain is sensitized to the very sight of them, and you just can't ignore them if you know they're available.

We test this in the lab by showing two pictures simultaneously very briefly (~ 250-500ms). One of the pictures is then replaced by a probe (like a *) and the participant's job is to report where they saw the probe. If, for example, there was a rose on the right and a scary dog on the left of the screen, and the probe replaced the scary dog, you would expect an anxious person to be quicker to respond to the probe than if it had replaced the rose. This is because their attention would already have been in that location. If the probe replaced the rose, they would have to disengage their attention from the rose location and move it to where the probe is. (We think of attention as being like a spotlight that can be moved around, even if the eyes stay in the same place).

Previous research has shown that non-parents (they used undergrads) show attentional bias to infant faces using this task. That is, they are quicker to report a probe that replaces an infant face than an adult face, which we take to mean that they were paying attention to the infant. The lab here at the Child Study Centre is interested in parenting research, so they would like to know if parents show the same effect, and if so, is it stronger than the effect in non-parents? If this is the case, it would then be interesting to look at individual differences in parents: for example, do poorly-attached parents show less bias to infant faces? Do substance-dependent parents or depressed parents show the same effect? Certain groups of parents have been shown to spend less time interacting with their infants in general, so it would be interesting to see if this extends to subconscious attentional effects and the brain areas that produce them.

Of course I have a whole host of plans to extend this more into my area of research, but that will have to wait until we have explored the basic effect more thoroughly!

Man, you are right that I should blog more often though. Although things are deathly quiet right now, I had an exciting few months what with a conference where I had to present, all kinds of excitement with customs, a visit from Del, a quick trip to the Vermont border... maybe I will try to catch up on relating everything this week.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Summer in the city

Oh man, summer on the East Coast kills me. I've had two miserable summers in Guelph, so this time I wangled an escape by staying in New Haven. But nope, it's just as gross weather-wise... although I'm definitely still much happier than I was in Guelph :)

I took a six-week sublet of a tiny little studio that is very close to work (and the gym), and MAN what a great idea. Not having the psychological barrier of having to wait for the shuttle or walk for 40 min makes it so easy to pop into work (or the gym) anytime I think of it. I'm getting a lot more done suddenly.

It also doesn't hurt in terms of productivity that both Helena and Rebecca are away visiting family. I have to say that it is very, very boring around here without them - but it is definitely an incentive to spend weekends in the lab. Not only is it air-conditioned, but what else am I going to be doing all by myself?!

The downside is getting enough sleep. It is SUPER hot and humid here (week-long 35C+ heat waves with 80-90% humidity) and my body just can't take it. My place does have a window A/C unit, but I am paying for my own electricity (and cheap, so don't want to run it much) and also too much A/C tends to make my throat hurt. In lieu of A/C at night, I keep the windows open (I have a corner unit, so it's a pretty good cross-draft) but that means the blinds are open over the windows so it's also really light in here. So, I've been waking up very early in the morning as soon as the sun is up.

Overall, though, the upsides of the move outweigh the downsides (I would have been dying in the heat on Nash St as well, and no A/C there!) If I was living in New Haven long term, Howe Street might be the place to be. True, it borders on the dodgy side of town (so far walking home have seen one car accident, one cyclist get hit by a car and two arrests) but the police are very active in patrolling this area and the headquarters of Yale security are here. And yeah, a lot more gymming and working are being done.

Anyway, two more weeks before I head out. I've finally finished data collection (!!!) - it took months longer than I had hoped, but that's research for you. The results are looking interesting. We should definitely be able to get a paper out of this one. There's a slight possibility we could even get two. I've started a new project with Helena too, to do with attentional bias to infant faces in parents. We've got it off the ground, and she will do the data collection while I will do the analysis from wherever I happen to be. It's been an interesting and fairly productive year, and to be honest it's also been a complete holiday. Being away from Guelph = no sitting through a million talks about rats (I've been to an equivalent number of talks, but on much more interesting topics), no students constantly wanting something, and no time being taken up by annoying departmental things. I just do my work quietly and then go home. This must be what having a sabbatical is like! Love it.

I had sort of planned to do some travel around the US with my last few weeks, but that was before Rebecca had to go home because of her mom's illness. I still could go by myself, of course, but summer is always tight money-wise, so am thinking maybe it's best just to sit tight unless something interesting comes up, and save my money for the UK trip in two weeks.