Home » Fall 2009Up Close

Behavior and the Brain

by Sandy Smith No Comment

Psychology department strengths lead to national recognition and discovery.

Department Chair Andrew Tomarken

Department Chair Andrew Tomarken

Forget what you’ve seen on The Sopranos, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Frasier or cop shows. Despite the almost universal depiction of psychology in the media, the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Science focuses on the bigger picture: how brain processes affect human behavior.

“The work done by our faculty and students has had wide-ranging impact on our understanding of the relation between the brain and thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,” says Department Chair Andrew Tomarken, associate professor of psychology. “I am not exaggerating when I say that I am sometimes in awe of my colleagues’ ability to ask important questions about brain-behavior linkages and to devise creative and rigorous experiments to answer such questions.”

More than two decades ago, he says, the psychology department decided to focus on three main areas of expertise: clinical science, cognition and cognitive neuroscience, and neuroscience. Today its faculty members are nationally recognized for their groundbreaking research. The department’s graduate program ranks among the top programs in the country in these three specialty areas. The undergraduate program, which boasts 287 students majoring in the field, benefits from having top experts teaching its courses.

Emphasizing these three areas doesn’t limit the department, Tomarken explains. Its 30 faculty members have interests and expertise in multiple and sometimes interconnecting areas of those three concentrations. Other connections flourish in the graduate program in psychological sciences, which spans the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Science and the Department of Psychology and Human Development in Peabody College. Because the two departments have complementary specialties, students and faculty are exposed to a wide range of educational and research opportunities.

Cross-campus collaborators Owen Jones and René Marois

Cross-campus collaborators Owen Jones and René Marois

Disgust to Depression and Everything In Between

In the past two years, College of Arts and Science psychology faculty have published major findings in a number of areas. These range from studies of brain activity that underlie perceptual expertise (Isabel Gauthier) and motion perception (Randolph Blake) to clinical studies of the relative benefits of different treatments for depression (Steve Hollon), the role of disgust in anxiety disorders (Bunmi Olatunji), and brain processes that underlie the cognitive and emotional problems experienced by individuals who suffer from schizophrenia (Sohee Park).

Many faculty and students have a high level of expertise in neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). For example, Associate Professor of Psychology Frank Tong has shown that fMRI can be used to decode very subtle differences in perceptual experience. In another recent collaboration, René Marois, associate professor of psychology, and Owen Jones, professor of law and of biological sciences, used fMRI to understand how the brain thinks about crime and punishment. Jeffrey D. Schall, the E. Bronson Ingram Professor of Neuroscience, joined the pair for additional studies assessing whether criminals have a distinct pattern of brain dysfunction that may predispose them to lives of crime.

Schall says the level of collaborative research spanning Vanderbilt’s different schools and colleges is unique. He notes that the university’s interdisciplinary Center for Integrative Health, Kennedy Center and Vanderbilt Vision Research Center are critical elements for sparking this level of cross-departmental research. “There are very low barriers to accomplishing interdisciplinary work,” Schall says. “We can credit the administration for creating discovery grants and other mechanisms that allow us to explore fresh ideas with new people. The degree of collegiality here creates an environment where it’s much smoother.”

But even within the department itself, collaboration is unique in that it often joins researchers from within the three disciplines who may also bring different research expertise. Tomarken points to work being conducted by Schall, Tom Palmeri and Gordon Logan as a prime example.

Schall is well-known for his work in the neural basis for response inhibition, while Associate Professor Palmeri is a recognized expert in the mathematical modeling of behavior. Logan, Centennial Professor of Psychology, has long studied cognitive control (the mental processes that control thoughts and behavior) and more than 20 years ago, developed a highly influential theoretical model known as the race model (as in stop and go, like in a race). Widely accepted, the race model is used to explain cognitive problems in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

Recently a team comprised of Logan, Schall, Palmeri and Research Associate Leanne Boucher explored how the theoretical model Logan developed is implemented by the brain. Together, their work provided a new dimension to long-held beliefs in psychology and new methods for exploring the brain’s influence on activities.

Tom Palmeri, Leanne Boucher, Jeffrey Schall and Gordon Logan

Tom Palmeri, Leanne Boucher, Jeffrey Schall and Gordon Logan

Collegial In and Out of the Classroom

Though the psychology department boasts some of the eminent researchers in the field, it doesn’t mean they are ensconced away in labs, Tomarken notes. “Our big names teach undergrads and do so with a high degree of commitment,” he says.

Graduate students, too, interact with the big names, with an expectation that they will work in labs and coauthor research with some of the luminaries. “Our program is based on getting students to learn how to do the things very early on that they’ll have to do to function as independent scientists,” Tomarken says. “We expect them to be continuously involved in research. They give talks. They publish.”

That, says Jenn Richler, a graduate student working in the clinical area, first drew her to the university. “But I was ultimately convinced to come here by the warm reception I received during recruitment weekend. That highlighted not only the great research going on, but the overall attitude in the department. Not all departments have a mix of people as friendly and eager to work collaboratively.”

Peiyan Wong, a doctoral candidate working in the neuroscience areas, agreed. “It’s not so much of a sink-or-swim thing. It’s guided swimming. I like the fact that psychology is a pretty open department. You get interactions not just at your own lab, but with other students as well. You get to learn about different fields of research. It gives you a different perspective.”

That feeling carries into the faculty realm, says David Zald, associate professor and director of the undergraduate studies program. “The one thing I still find really distinguishes this department is the extent to which the faculty are accessible to the students. Students who want to join labs can do that with a level of ease, and there’s an expectation of that possibility,” he says. “Having a good professor teach a course is always beneficial. But many of those same courses you could take at another university, and a lot of the material covered would be similar. Here there’s the potential for learning outside the classroom, and we just do a really good job of getting students to have those opportunities.”

photo credit: Daniel Dubois, Steve Green, John Russell

Comments are closed.