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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21 Apr 2017

A Collection of Health Psychology & Medicine Articles Booklet

A Collection of Health Psychology & Medicine Articles Booklet

Health psychology and medicine examines how biological, social and psychological factors influence health and illness. Health psychologists use psychological science to promote health, prevent illness and improve health care systems.

This booklet, A Collection of Health Psychology & Medicine Articles, covers a range of topics—from sleep loss among teens to the heightened risk of hospitalization among older adults—and highlights some of the most innovative research in recent years.

If you enjoy these articles, don’t stop here. APA’s Journals Program maintains a database of hundreds of papers on health psychology and medicine, and as an APA member you enjoy highly discounted access that enables you to explore these and other research topics online at www.apa.org/pubs/journals.

 

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21 Apr 2017

A Collection of Forensic Psychology Articles Booklet

A Collection of Forensic Psychology Articles Booklet

Forensic psychology is primarily intended to provide professional psychological expertise within the judicial and legal systems. The distinctiveness of forensic psychology is its advanced knowledge and skills reflecting the intersection of legal theory, procedures and law with clinical issues, practice and ethics.

This booklet, A Collection of Forensic Psychology Articles, highlights some of the leading psychological research today on topics ranging from sexual assault on college campuses to police community partnerships.

When curating this selection of articles, APA’s scientific staff drew from four of the leading journals on forensic psychology. We encourage you to visit these journals on our website at www.apa.org/pubs/journals where you can access them as well as hundreds of papers in the field of forensic psychology.

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06 Apr 2017

A Collection of Neuroscience & Cognition Articles Booklet

A Collection of Neuroscience & Cognition Articles Booklet

Cognitive psychologists, sometimes called brain scientists, study how the human brain works—how we think, remember and learn. They apply psychological science to understand how we perceive events and make decisions.

This booklet, A Collection of Neuroscience & Cognition Articles, features some of the most influential scholars and cutting-edge scientific researchers on topics that range from increasing cognitive reserves to an analysis of learning and recall.

In curating this selection of articles, APA’s scientific staff drew from half a dozen scholarly APA journals and publications that focus on the latest neuroscience and cognition research. APA’s Journals Program houses hundreds of academic papers in this field, and you can access them by visiting the journals area on our website at www.apa.org/pubs/journals and browsing by subject: Neuroscience & Cognition.

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06 Apr 2017

A Collection of Industrial and Organizational Psychology Articles from APA Journals Booklet

A Collection of Industrial and Organizational Psychology Articles from APA Journals Booklet

Industrial and organizational (IO) psychologists focus on the behavior of employees in the workplace. They apply psychological principles and research methods to improve the overall work environment, including performance, communication, professional satisfaction and safety.

This booklet, A Collection of Industrial and Organizational Psychology Articles, provides a window into some of the latest research in IO psychology, ranging from studies on leadership development to managing coworker conflicts.

In curating this selection of articles, APA’s scientific staff drew from 15 scholarly APA journals and publications that focus on the latest industrial and organizational psychology research. APA’s Journals Program houses hundreds of academic papers in this field, and you can access them by visiting the journals area on our website at www.apa.org/pubs/journals and browsing by subject: Industrial/Organizational Psychology & Management.

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28 Mar 2017

Jeremy Wolfe Wants to Understand How We See Things

Jeremy Wolfe Wants to Understand How We See Things
Jeremy Wolfe
APA Fellow Jeremy Wolfe's research looks into how people use sight to process information that's out there in the world.

After four decades of investigating how the human eye works, Jeremy Wolfe, PhD, still finds plenty to keep him curious.

“I never get bored,” says Wolfe, head of the Visual Attention Lab at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, Mass., and an APA Fellow. “There’s always something new to consider. My elevator speech is that for the last 25 years, most of my lab’s work has involved studying visual search. Or, how do you find what you’re looking for? We move back and forth between basic science issues and real-world problems.”

How do you locate the mustard in the refrigerator, pick out the weeds from the posies in your garden, or home in on the cereal you like best from the dozens arrayed on the shelf in your local supermarket? Because your eye conveys so much information in a glance, according to Wolfe, professor of ophthalmology and radiology at HMS, that information has to be processed to make perceptual sense. “If we want to know if a specific object is present, we will often need to search for it, even if it is easily visible,” Wolfe says.

The mechanics of those quotidian quests have fascinated Wolfe for his whole career. In 1989, he first published his influential analysis of the process, which he called Guided Search, building on “the two-stage architecture” — preattentive and attentive — of Anne Treisman’s pioneering feature integration theory, and other works. Guided Search tracks the complex process, conducted in fractions of seconds, by which we find “targets” among the “distractors” in our field of vision by applying certain fairly coarse criteria, such as color, shape, size, orientation and curvature, and then “binding,” or assembling, those traits into a “single representation of an object,” according to Wolfe. Some objects are fairly easy to find, while others, like the proverbial needle in a haystack, can take quite a bit of time and attention.

 “The core of GS was the claim that information from the first (preattentive) stage could be used to guide deployments of selective attention in the second (attentive stage),” Wolfe wrote. He is now tinkering with the fifth iteration of Guided Search, to incorporate new data.

Wolfe’s latest research studies some of the limitations on our ability to see what’s in front of us, specifically problems that arise when people are tasked with looking for “rare events,” or things they are not likely to find — the radiologist examining X-rays for breast cancer, or the airport inspector looking for weapons or bombs in luggage. Radiologists miss 20 to 30 percent of visible cancers; for security purposes, the government doesn’t like to share how airport scanners are doing, Wolfe notes. One of the things that happens to expert “searchers” over time is that their vigilance flags, because most of the time what they’re looking for isn’t there.

“There are really profound limits on the human search engine,” Wolfe says.

Computers do much better, typically finding 100 percent of tumors, for example. However, a very high false positive rate is the computers’ downfall (and also for programs designed to improve searchers’ find rate). That’s a serious problem, because identifying nonexistent cancers activates an expensive, irksome and, for the patients, a terrifying recall process, to no useful end. So, people are better prospects for these jobs than computers, at least for now, and Wolfe’s research is aimed at figuring out how to improve humans’ overall performance on screening for rare events.

What Wolfe calls his own “origin story,” or how he got his start in visual research, begins when he was in high school in New Jersey, at a summer job his solid-state physicist dad got him at his workplace, the Bell Labs facility in Murray Hill, N.J.

“He sold me to his tennis buddy, who was a color vision researcher,” Wolfe recalls. He spent stretches of that summer immobilized in a chair, “looking at barely visible spots of light. My job was to say what color they were. What was cool about that was that I didn’t think I could tell. I thought [I]was guessing,” he says, but the experiment showed that he was able to identify the colors more often than he would have if he were merely guessing. On his many necessary breaks from the tedious work, Wolfe roamed the labs’ halls. He spent hours that summer talking to scientists he later discovered were famous in their fields.

“Many of the issues that have been important to my career I was introduced to then,” he recalls. That exposure was so important to him that Wolfe himself now has “an absolute commitment” to bringing high school students into his own lab, providing internships for half a dozen of them every summer.

Wolfe went on to graduate summa cum laude from Princeton in 1977. His doctorate, in 1981, was from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his doctoral thesis was entitled, “On Binocular Single Vision.” Wolfe taught at MIT for 10 years and won the Baker Memorial Prize for teaching there in 1989. He was denied tenure the following year.

 “I was not the first person to win that prize and the following year lose a tenure battle,” he recalls. “It was seen as a zero-sum game, that if you were devoting the kind of time to your teaching to be winning that prize, you couldn’t really be a serious researcher.”

That episode ended with Wolfe moving his lab to Harvard in 1991 (though he was also a popular lecturer at MIT for 25 years; the podcast version of his “Introduction to Psychology” has been a top offering on iTunes U), and he’s had “quite a nice career, but a rather different career” from the one he had in mind. He’s a medical school professor, not a psychology professor, and “I live entirely on grant money, which is an exciting way to live. I’ve done basic research and use-inspired basic research. I’ve gotten grants every which way.”

Wolfe doesn’t mind that his scientific research is expected to lead to useful applications. He says, “When we’re working on the public dime, we ought to be able to make a decent case for why this is a sensible use of taxpayers’ hard-earned money."

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20 Sep 2016

Research Roundup Articles from Practice Update

Research Roundup Articles from Practice Update

The APA Practice Organization, a separate companion organization to APA, supports practicing psychologists in all settings and at all stages of their career. The Practice Organization advocates for the profession of psychology regarding licensure, reimbursement for services and professional standing.

Practice Update is the e-newsletter of the Practice Organization. This collection research roundup articles address some of the latest literature covering a range of issues from the use of animals as a therapeutic agent and the growing field of concussion research and treatment to current research on body image among young girls and clinical considerations for psychologists who see patients with opioid misuse.

Please enjoy this collection of selected research roundup articles from Practice Update.

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29 Jul 2016

Collection of Psychological Bulletin Articles

Collection of Psychological Bulletin Articles

As a psychologist, you understand the importance of keeping up with the latest research and developments from across psychology. That is why, as a valued member of APA, we are making this collection of recent meta-analytic reviews from Psychological Bulletin® available to you today.

Please enjoy this collection of selected articles from Psychological Bulletin®.

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