I am developing a course called PSY397 Advanced Lab, for the Psychology Department. The goal is to create a situation in which senior psych majors can – in small groups – design and run an experiment. This involves coming up with an idea, doing background reading, creating the actual experiment, running human subjects, analyzing data, and creating a research article and/or conference presentation to present the results. It is quite an undertaking for them.
In my case, the experiments will explore metacognition, or your ability to “think about thinking”. This involves monitoring your thoughts and using knowledge about your own mind to influence your decisions. It has been linked to self-awareness, consciousness, self-control (click here for a news story in which I briefly talk about that), understanding the emotions of others, and many other sophisticated mental processes. Many disciplines have begun to apply metacognition to their work, notably including clinical psychology and education (e.g., teaching students to learn how to learn).
I originally began testing metacognitive processes in rhesus monkeys, exploring their ability to use self-reflective information to adjust their behavior and even to report on their own actions (a phenomenon I discovered in them, called self-agency). Like us, they seem to have a reflective mind that can think in ways that, in humans, we would identify as conscious processes.
The goal of my summer project is to develop a few human paradigms that will be engaging, fun, and rigorous tools to help students learn about metacognition. One paradigm I’ve used in the past involves students tracking their confidence during college exams, a metacognitive process can help improve decision-making and identify cognitive biases. Of course, I’ll leave it to the students to decide how this could be adjusted, applied to different areas, assessed in different cultures, or “spun off” in any number of ways.
Another paradigm I’ve used and will be developing over the summer allows people to monitor their actions and experience different mental phenomena using virtual reality. One of my students at Albright, Gwen Birster ’17, recently showed me this video of people using virtual reality (or, strictly speaking, augmented reality) to simulate migraines. I will be using basically the same technology in class, and so one of my first tasks will be attempting to create something similar that allows people to put themselves inside the mind of someone who has a disorder.
But, there are many questions that I need to figure out: Should students learn to program the software and create simulations themselves? It could take a whole semester just to do that part. Should I make a few simulations (or use pre-made programs available for the Oculus Rift headset) and train them to collect physiological/psychological data? Or should I let them decide which aspects of the task they want to do? And of course, how should I go about giving lectures, demonstrations, and moderating discussions in the course so that they can make informed choices? To answer all of these questions, the obvious first step is to determine for myself what can be done in virtual reality that can directly test metacognition, empathy, self-agency, and related abilities.
I also have a variety of related technological marvels that I need to play around with, and I will try to update this blog whenever I find something exciting.