26 Apr 2017

Gregory Ball and the Adaptiveness of Behavior

Gregory Ball and the Adaptiveness of Behavior
Gregory Ball
APA Fellow Gregory Ball has spent most of his academic career studying animals and birds, and using the findings to develop understanding about the human brain and behavior.

Growing up, Gregory Ball, PhD, learned a lot about birds from his father, who did his undergraduate and graduate studies in zoology. “He wanted to be an ornithologist,” he recalls, speaking to the American Psychological Association from his office at the University of Maryland, where he is a professor and dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Science and APA Fellow.

That experience helped shape Ball’s own future interest and research on the interrelation of hormones, the brain, and reproductive behavior. By studying nonhuman animals, in Ball’s case birds, “you can study relationships between the brain and physiology in a way that you can’t in primates and humans,” he said.

In his lab at the University of Maryland, his team is studying how the perception of song induces gene expression in the brain of birds and how early experience with different kinds of song might affect that gene expression. They also recently published a study looking at how hormones interact with the dopamine system to affect sexual motivation. “Hormones do their work by modulating neurotransmitters and we’re trying to understand the circuit that they interact with to do that,” he said. According to the study, the projection from the preoptic area of the brain to the ventral tegmental area, where the dopamine of one of four major dopamine systems originates, to the accumbens, which plays a significant role in the cognitive processing of aversion, motivation, reward, and reinforcement learning, is very important in that process.

One of the Ball’s favorite recent findings to come out of his lab is related to steroids. “People think that a steroid has a very general effect on behavior – that it just makes you more motivated, or stimulated to do something,” Ball said enthusiastically.

“And we’ve done experiments where we’ve put tiny amounts of hormones or hormone blockers on the brain and we’ve shown that hormones actually act in multiple parts of the brain in specific ways to modulate behavior. For instance, the desire to sing is controlled in one part of the brain, but the control of how well you produce song in a temporal fashion is modulated in another part of the brain.”

Ball first got swept up in the studies of brain function and behavior in animals while studying at Columbia University. He took his introduction to psychology course with Dr. Herbert S. Terrace, who, among other things, led the famous study of animal language acquisition in the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky. Ball began working with Terrace, who had studied under B.F. Skinner, the year after he began working with Chimpsky. He was intrigued by the studies of brain function and behavior in animals at Columbia (along with the then-contentious, now-settled debate between behavioral and cognitive psychologists) and began his longtime specialization in experimenting on pigeons.

Under Terrace, they employed the Skinnerian approach, which doesn’t take into the account private events – like thinking, perceptions, and unobservable emotions – as causes of an organism’s behavior. Ball said he sensed something was missing in studying the pigeons this way.

“They didn’t know if they were males or females, they didn’t know anything about pigeons. They were just animals that you put in the box and you saw how the stimuli affected them. And this is that Skinnerian notion that the organism didn’t really matter – that the contingencies of reinforcement were so powerful that the same thing that happens in a pigeon could be programmed to happen in [other animals].”

Despite disagreeing with the Skinnerian approach, he learned in his early work in Terrace’s lab that he could parse and further understand many topics related to the brain and behavior by looking at nonhuman animals. He began to understand the potential for studying animals other than humans and use the findings to develop understanding about the human brain and behavior.

Around that time, he met Dr. Rae Silver, who had just come to Columbia University and was studying the parental behavior of doves in their natural habitat. He became her first research assistant at the university, which he said was a key event in his career as a psychologist.

“It was another milestone in my career because I realized ‘Oh, this is it!’ You study the animal on its own terms, you study the natural behavior of the animal, and try to glean what you can about the general principles of physiology and the brain related to behavior,” Ball said. “And that’s when I sort of saw that by studying these relationships in animals, you can understand the evolution, the adaptiveness of behavior and put it in the broader natural context.”

After his formative years at Columbia, he earned a PhD in psychobiology at Rutgers University, and completed his postdoctoral work in comparative neuroendocrinology and ethology at Rockefeller University. Prior to getting hired by the University of Maryland in 2014, he taught at Rutgers, Boston College, and Johns Hopkins University.
Today, as dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Science, much of his time is filled with administrative tasks, but he still finds time to pop over to the lab and check on his staff’s research while sharing encouraging stories to inspire the next generation of academics to follow their dreams.

One story he always enjoys retelling is about growing up right down the street from the University of Maryland and how on one summer break from his studies at Columbia, he took a job cutting the institution’s grass.

 “[I tell them] I used to mow the lawn of the building that I’m now dean of,” he says with a chuckle.

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23 Feb 2017

Shium Andrew Chen and 50 Years of the Asian American Experience

Shium Andrew Chen and 50 Years of the Asian American Experience
APA Fellow Shium Andrew Chen has written extensively on the issue of cultural inclusion of Asians through psychological identity and acculturation. (Photo: Drew Costley)

Shium Andrew Chen, PhD, drove all night from Slippery Rock, Pa., to Raleigh, N.C., one night in July 1989. He was spurred to action by the murder of Jim Ming Loo, a Chinese American, who was killed by two white brothers, Lloyd and Robert Piche. The Piche brothers admitted to not liking “Orientals,” as they called them, and harbored resentments originating in the Vietnam War. After hearing about the murder, Chen went to support the family and community in its pursuit of justice in the situation.

“We spent two hours listening and comforting Loo’s crying parents about their loving son who was ready to enter [college] as a freshman that fall. It was heartbreaking to learn that Jim's 11-year-old brother knelt in front of his brother's portrait without saying a word for a whole month,” Chen said. “At 8 a.m. in the morning we met with the community task force, helping to solidify their effort. I attended the court hearing of the case. The murderers were found guilty and sentenced.”

For Chen, the Loo case was similar to the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 by two white American autoworkers, who, according to Chen, were influenced by media coverage of the booming Japanese auto industry. Like Loo, Chin wasn’t of the country of origin that the assailants sought to discriminate against, but he was Chinese American.

“He was killed by Caucasian Vietnam War veterans and they saw an Asian, but he wasn’t even Vietnamese. . . . I link their attitudes to violence in the media and the media portrayals of Asians, so that’s resulting in that type of violence.” Chen was among the first wave of psychologists researching and/or writing about the impact of violence in mass media on violent behavior. In 2003, Developmental Psychology published a study conducted from 1977 to 1992 titled “Early Exposure to TV Violence Predicts Aggression in Adulthood.” He was also among the first generation of academics in the past few decades writing about the media’s portrayals of Asians and its impact on American perceptions of Asians.

The perpetrators of the murders in the both cases were convicted for their crimes, but they received different sentences. Robert Piche was convicted of second-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon, and Lloyd Piche was convicted of misdemeanor assault in the case of Loo. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were charged with second-degree murder, but were convicted of manslaughter in the case of Chin.

For Chen, these cases represent a nearly 50-year exploration of implicit learning, ethnic identity, the causes of violence both against Asian Americans and in general, and ways to prevent it.

“I dream about world peace. Any problem, whether it be diplomatic or otherwise. I think it can always be addressed with psychology,” Chen said. “That’s why I [talk] about cultural adaptation and psychological identity, basically because we feel that we are different, but if we share with each other and share or accept or adapt to each other, we can solve a lot of our problems. . . . [It’s like] with China. They are building their military because the U.S. threatened their country in the South [Asian] seas. . . . If you are planning peace, you have to practice peace yourself.”

“I hope that the racial problems, the ethnic problems can be solved by navigating our individual psychological identities and psychological interchange of our attitudes,” said Chen.

Chen, a longtime Fellow of the American Psychological Association, was an early psychologist to explore implicit learning, the learning of complex information in an incidental manner, without awareness of what has been learned. This type of learning has become known as one of the causes of racial and ethnic discrimination. Chen said that media portrayals of Asians, combined with depiction of violence in the media, play a large role in the discriminatory attitudes that lead to violent crimes like the murder of Loo.

For Chen, it was the atrocities that he saw growing up in Japanese-occupied China, along with the humanistic Eastern philosophies of Confucius and Mencius, that inspired him to become a psychologist.

Chen was born in 1931 in the Jiangsu province in eastern-central coastal China, the same year that Japan invaded Manchuria, a region that is now referred to as Northeast China, in what many considered to be the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The war, during which between 17,000,000 and 20,000,000 Chinese civilians died according to Michael Clodfelter’s (1992) book Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Reference, served as a backdrop for his childhood.

He was witness to and a victim of these atrocities. “Witnessing atrocity during childhood years affects one's personal development and attitude,” Chen said. “When I was in my teens, each time I entered the city gate, I had to bow down to Japanese soldiers holding their guns with bayonets on them. And one night, we had to hide in a small boat under tall weeds in a creek while Japanese gunboats were sweeping with machine gun overhead.”

This time in his life made Chen feel “desperate for safety, peace, security, love, and all of the other human ingredients.”

He found comfort in the philosophies of Confucius and Mencius, who emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, and sincerity.

“They provided me very much with the base, the roots of interest in people and interest in psychology,” said Chen. In 1949, Chen emigrated from Taiwan to the United States to continue his studies in psychology at the University of Oregon and then at Teachers College, Columbia University.

He was quickly confronted with being an ethnic minority in a country mired in racial segregation and untrusting of those from outside of traditional Western European culture.

It took him a long time to acculturate to American society. Chen said he learned that ethnic minorities have to negotiate with their indigenous ethnic culture, the minority realm that is imposed on them by way of being a minority in a society, and the mainstream culture that exists in a society.

“[I acculturated] because of my kids. They are Americans. . . . One of my boys was in the Boy Scouts, I remember vividly one scene. His Boy Scout leader kept saying, ‘You are Chinese,’ and my son said ‘I’m not!’ He said ‘You are. You are Chinese,’ and he was almost in tears,” Chen said.

At the time he was living in Butler, Pa., a formerly all-white town where his family was one of the first two minority families to arrive. Because Chen was so focused on his studies, he said, he hadn’t realized how discriminatory Americans could be toward Chinese Americans. The experiences of his children, his research on the aforementioned hate crimes and his becoming president of the Organization of Chinese Americans opened his eyes to what was really going on around him.

“I didn’t realize how badly the Chinese were mistreated until I was in the Organization of Chinese Americans,” Chen said. “I had no idea how badly the Chinese were treated, especially laborers in the early days of this country.”

In addition to bringing to light the discrimination that Asian Americans face, Chen has identified issues related to seeking and receiving mental health services.

Regarding his 1985 paper “The Need for Relevant Psychology for Asians,” Chen said, “I emphasize the value of psychology, but psychology is still foreign to people in general,” adding, “especially to Asian Americans because they are unaware of it. Maybe not because of them, but because of the exclusiveness of American culture itself. Personally, I feel my work, Asian American psychologists’ work, is a success, even though the awareness level is low.”

For example, when he joined the Association of Asian American Psychologists (AAPA) in 1975, it was somewhat monolithic in its scope, focusing on building unity among Asian Americans and attempting to tackle the issues of the Asian American community as a whole. But now, Chen said, the organization has several subgroups – an LGBTQIA+ group, an East Asian group and a South Asian group, for example – that focus on individual identities that Asian Americans form.

Now retired, Chen hopes his body of work can contribute to the struggle for a better life for all ethnic minorities. He’s written a memoir titled My Journey to Becoming Chinese American – A Memoir of an Asian American Psychologist and His Search for Ethnic Identity that’s currently being edited.

“They say that I retired from psychology,” he said. “But I never retired from civil rights and my work, the memoir I’m working on, is a continuation of that.”

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