Autumn running and research FOMO

It’s a cool, rainy Autumn morning – finally. I’m inside, with the kitty, planning to do some work on the lit review before heading into uni to do more testing, reading and writing once traffic subsides.

Pearl Izumi
Pearl Izumi E:Motion Trail N2 v2. Love the red, black and lime combo.

My body is feeling quite sore, but a good “done lots of things” sore. On Friday I did a short walk/run with a friend around a bay that’s close to uni (very lucky, running by the water – lots of dog-, people- and boat-watching), on Saturday I did the usual parkrun (10 sec slower than my PB, dammit), followed by more home decluttering – the pantry looks lovely and manageable now (although how long will that last?). On Sunday I did some trail running (almost 10k very slowly, I came 3rd last in my age and sex category, but I enjoyed it a lot). I hit the trails in my new shoes for the first time, and they felt very grippy and secure, although more neutral than I’m used to (less arch support) which I’m not 100% sure about.

It’s sinking in that in just over a month I will be going overseas (North America) to present my research at two conferences. I’m still testing participants, which means I won’t have much time to analyse results and think about discussing the findings. (So I’m quietly terrified.) I’ll be spending some time in the US and Canada beyond conferencing. I’m going with a friend, and I think it’ll be fun – apart from becoming enlightened and covering our dear alma mater with glory,  I think we’re going to hit up some haunted/creepy places, catch trains, and trial some fine local fare (especially of the liquid variety).

Conferences are funny things. They make you pay to attend even if you’re a presenter – so, essentially, you are providing the content, and yet you have to pay for the privilege of being there and providing said content. Also, I’ve just found out that one of the two conferences I’m going to won’t be providing lunch this year – outrage!! And yet we do it, because it’s good experience, good “networking” (ugh…) and not least because the university subsidises the attendance of research students and academics.

Lately I’ve had massive research FOMO. My degree is a combined clinical and research degree, and my research as part of this degree will finish in a few months. I’ve been going to quite a few research seminars and colloquia, and I really wish I was sticking around to do more research – I have ideas on how I’d like to continue the research I’m doing, but it involves more experimental work of a kind that my current university is not really equipped for. Also, I don’t want to lose my clinical skills (hard-earned over the past three years), and I do really like clinical work. So the sensible option is to finish, get a job, and then think about coming back for more research later, which is something lots of psychs do. I just have to make my peace with not being able to Do All The Things at the same time…

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Back to Stats

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Tools of the trade: coloured whiteboard markers, eraser, Casio calculator of a vintage that makes me feel old, tissues, and mints because talking for hours requires minty fresh sustenance. Plus accidental e-reader.

It’s the first week of tutorials for the undergrads, and the first day of tutoring for me. I started doing university tutoring two years ago, not having done any kind of teaching before, and (mostly) loved it, so here I am, back again, doing it alongside research and other work.

I’ve tutored various 1st, 2nd and 3rd year units, but most of the time I stick with Statistics. Why Stats? Quite a few of the students I teach openly admit they’re scared Stats. So I give them a bit of a spiel at the start of the semester. Stats is important, obviously so if you’re running your own research, so you can make sense of your data and see how your hypotheses fared. But even if you don’t go on to run your own experiments, in any area of science or health science you end up in, you’ll be able to critically evaluate journal articles, for example about different treatments, and make up your own mind about the results*. And even if you don’t stay in science, if you get Stats you will find people who want to be your friends, because so many people are scared of Stats**. Stats is also relevant to lots of other areas, like marketing and politics.

Riveting stuff 😉

But I do think the above is true, and the reason I generally choose to tutor Stats over other areas is because I want to make it a bit less scary for the students, and hopefully get some of them interested in Stats. (And also, other more selfish reasons, like keeping it fresh in my mind for my own research needs, and also because the marking is more objective and straight-forward than in other subjects. And also professionally selfish reasons, like increasing the Stats literacy of the future Psychology workforce.)

 

* What I don’t tell them is that it takes a long time, and a fair bit of not only statistical knowledge, but also knowledge of research methods in general and also often of a particular area of research, to really be able to engage critically with a paper’s results section.

** You might prefer people to befriend you based on your stellar personality and sparkling wit, but as a fellow Stats enthusiast I’m certain you possess both of these attributes in spades.

Season change

I much prefer autumn and spring to summer and winter – I see them as transitional seasons, which of course isn’t quite accurate, as every season is a transition. But in spring and autumn, it feels like the transition is somehow more extreme, and so it’s not as monotonous as three months of heat or cold.

This summer has left me battered and bruised, and I’m glad it’s now autumn. I can feel the cool change in the air, especially in the morning and at night, a touch of crispness. It feels like I’m slowly waking up – opening my eyes, moving on. This is not really a personal blog so I won’t go into the details, but the past few months have played havoc with my internal and external life. I hope now is the time to get some distance and heal.

My course continues and I still love it, although it’s hard at times. In this clinical rotation the emphasis is much more on process, a notion which is hard to describe. Basically it’s focusing on the dynamics in the therapy room between therapist and patient, rather than solely on the presenting problems. This is challenging for me as a novice therapist, as it is quite a confronting process, both for therapist and patient, as it involves pointing out the “backstage” elements of what is a constructed social interaction. Therapy is about being truthful, rather than being nice, but it’s hard to be truthful in a nice way at times. I’m also learning about different ways of “being” in the therapy room with different types of patients, which is also challenging. Being “nice, supportive therapist” will not get some (most?) people to shift.

There’s also only a couple of months until we are released into the “real world” for our external placements, which is quite scary/exciting. In the mean time, I’m also learning lots of neuro, and there may be some brain dissectin’ going on in the future. Not having done a human brain before, this is exciting.

Things I am loving right now: coffee, Swedish crime fiction (everyone in these books drinks so much coffee), and that it’s cool enough to wear leggings. Yes, sometimes it’s the little things that get you through.

Art/Vision

Recently, the topic of “art” came up in my Perception unit. Visual art, specifically.

What is “art”? What isn’t “art”? Who gets to make the distinction? The beholder, the artists themselves, or trained experts and critics?

[The discussion then turned to a superficial critique of subjectivity, relativity, and (perhaps inevitably) postmodernism. I don’t want to debunk this critique in this post. It’s a long and involved topic that comes up quite often when people from traditional scientific professions (and not only) try to tackle new-fangled non-scientific concepts. I’d like to discuss this in a separate entry when I get the time.]

So…art. I think it’s particularly interesting and relevant to discuss visual art as part of a discipline that deals primarily with vision. Vision is one of the earlier- and rapidly-developing senses, and many of its functions develop substantially within the first 6 months after birth (such as binocularity, colour vision, fixation, peripheral vision, visual acuity)1. Fully-abled adults use 40%-50% of the cortex in different kinds of visual processing2, which is more than any other sense.

What is really interesting about vision (and other senses) is how subjective and relative it actually is.

One of the most intriguing facts about visual perception is that as sensory information goes from the eyes to the cortex (bottom-up processing), top-down processing also occurs: previously-acquired information is added to our perception processing, mediating our (re)action. Visual information is also integrated with other sensory input such as sound, information from the vestibular system, etc. This can result in quite different reactions to visual stimuli in different people – ranging from conscious reaction (“I like/dislike this because it reminds me of X”), to harder-to-trace feelings (a certain image/colour evokes a certain mood), to autonomic arousal (for example, an increase in heart rate when trauma-specific images are seen by people who have experienced or witnessed trauma), to motor (sometimes reflexive) actions (blinking, ducking).

Differences also occur at the “bottom-up” level of perception – in the general mechanisms and components of the sensory organs.

I don’t claim that while one person sees the sky as blue, another sees it as octarine-coloured3; or that where I see a dog, you might see an elephant (although it’s true that where I might see a rabbit, you might see a duck). The intra-species differences (even accounting for colourblind, brain injured, psychotic-disordered, or hallucinogen-consuming parts of the population) are minute compared to inter-species differences. While most animals are sensitive to light, they respond to different wavelengths (some animals can sense infrared or ultraviolet light, for example). Humans are sensitive to specific (and pretty narrow) frequency ranges when it comes to light and sound, so inter-personal differences are still bound to our perceptual ranges.

So, while keeping these ranges in mind, here are some of the tricky ways in which visual perception operates. Vision works primarily by locating the edges in an image and filling in the rest, rather than by taking an accurate “snapshot” of the world around us (as some may think). It is quite selective – our peripheral vision is not very good, and even as we “take in” an image, many characteristics are discarded along the way (a sort of context-dependent image compression).

Vision is easily fooled by controlling context, as can be seen through illusions and aftereffects4. Change the contrast, the sequence of a number of images, insert gaps in easily-recognisable shapes, move an image closer or further away from the eye, cycle through different colours, and you will start to see things that aren’t there, or miss things that are there.

In addition, there is significant variability in the number of cone photoreceptors of different types in the human retina from human to human. Cone photoreceptors are mostly responsible for colour vision (and certain types of colour blindness), and their differing population means each person sees colours slightly differently. Colour groups, as known in common usage (the different types of “blue”, for example: navy blue, royal blue, electric blue, baby blue, etc) are constructs created by dividing the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum into wavelength ranges and by grouping certain lengths/ranges together (often in a culturally-specific way).

Now also add in cornea and lens shape and irregularities, the progressive weakening of cilliary muscles (which control the stretching or relaxing of the lens to achieve focus of the light) over time, and also (less commonly) disorders or injuries that may affect the visual cortex or other parts of the brain involved in sensory processing, and you can see why vision itself can be considered somewhat subjective.

So, in a nutshell:

Q: Do you see what I see?
A: Not exactly.

So, to summarise, even while barely touching on cultural values surrounding certain modes of expression, or socially-sanctioned or frowned-upon forms of art, or on what constitutes transgression/iconoclasm in art, or personal preference as informed by previous experiences, associations and cultural values, we “see” a difference at the most basic level of perceiving visual information.

No wonder art remains a controversial topic when we can’t even fully assume that what the artist sees is exactly what the viewer/consumer sees is what the art critic sees…

DISCLAIMER: This is my general understanding of how vision works, in a very generic sense. It is not the Word of the Vision Gods, it’s not published elsewhere, and I have not spent years researching and reading about visual perception – so don’t quote me on this, and always do your own research.

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1. White, F., Hayes, B., & Livesey, D. (2005). Developmental Psychology. Sydney: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
2. Snowden, R., Thompson, P., & Troscianko, T. (2006). Basic Vision: An Introduction to Visual Perception. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3. Octarine is Terry’s Pratchett’s imaginary eighth colour, presented in the Discworld series.
4. Here are some great websites on illusions and aftereffects: Akiyoshi’s illusion pages, 84 Optical Illusions & Visual Phenomena and Project LITE.

Women in scientific and science-related fields

Here is a summary1 of the main points I gleaned by looking at the literature (keeping in mind that sex and gender differences are huge fields, and that adequately covering all the literature is probably within the scope of a PhD thesis, not a 1500-word undergraduate essay):

1. Women are under-represented in scientific, technology-based, engineering and mathematics fields. The purpose of the review was to investigate why this is the case.

2. The papers I looked at mainly dealt with gender differences. Even most of the ones that referred to “sex” were really talking about gender2.

3. Biological psychology, in most of the cases I’ve seen, is stupid. Sorry, but it is. It seems to exist more for legitimising inequity and asshattery than anything else (“Men cheat because they need to spread their seed! It’s SCIENCE!” etc.) In all seriousness, though, evolutionary biology assumes its dictates are universal – disregarding time, place, culture, etc. Also, gender roles have been shifting over the past few decades, which can’t be accounted for by evolution, which sort of takes millennia.

4. A large percentage of the developmental papers I’ve read about gender differences acknowledge that gender is at least to some extent socially constructed and/or mediated3.

5. Children learn about socially gender-linked characteristics and gender appropriateness at a scarily young age (well before the age of 6), and also about penalties for not behaving in a gender-appropriate way.

6. As a continuation of point 4, children are uncannily good at profiling various grown-up occupations based on gender appropriateness. Not only that, but they’re pretty good at distinguishing between high- and low-status jobs.

7. Boys seem to be more attracted to the higher-status jobs (most of which happen to be male-typed professions, as defined by the children), whereas girls seem more attracted to female-typed professions, despite knowing full-well that they have a lower social standing4.

8. This most likely stems from the concept of self-efficacy5, which, in a nutshell, means that people lean towards things they seem to be good at, they’re encouraged to do, have good role models for, and are socially sanctioned.

9. Looking at the factors which contribute to self-efficacy beliefs – in a study, parents were found to explain scientific concepts to male children three times as much as to female children. Teachers have also been found, in other studies, to encourage boys more than girls to ask questions and make consolidating statements. In addition, the fact that there are fewer women in science (and mathematics, and engineering, technology, etc) professions means that girls don’t have many role models/mentors, which in turn means they are less likely to enter those fields. On top of this, the societies and cultural groups that were surveyed in the literature I read (mostly middle-class white America and UK – there is a huge publication bias that ties in with other sorts of inequity, such as English language hegemony, but that’s a topic for another time) do clearly have a divide between male- and female-typed professions.

So, not having satisfied any of the conditions needed for achieving a feeling of self-efficacy in a scientific field, girls don’t consider themselves efficacious for this field, and hence start looking elsewhere.

10. Studies looking at how intelligence/mathematical ability/spatial skills tests are performed have found an interesting sort of gender bias. Basically, women taking these tests seem to know that these are “male” domains, which adds pressure to the test process, which has a negative impact on the results.

11. To examine the effect of these cultural stereotypes on performance, there have been studies done on stereotype threat and stereotype priming.

12. Stereotype threat – the stress/anxiety a member of a stigmatised group feels when they feel they are in danger of confirming negative stereotypes about themselves and the group they belong to. Stereotype priming – reading out a passage regarding a stereotype prior to performing an unrelated test.

13. Stereotype threat studies might involve something like addressing Female Group 1 in terms of their gender before administering the test, and addressing Female Group 2 in gender-neutral way before the same test, for example relating to them as “university students” rather than “women”6. Interestingly, certain racial stereotypes (“model minority” stereotypes) seem to boost performance in some of these tests. Personally I wonder how much extra pressure to perform that adds to the testing process.

14. Stereotype priming usually involves getting Group 1 (made up of males and females) to listen to an audio recording about a “typical” woman’s day-to-day activities, and Group 2 (also mixed-gender) to listen to a recording about a “typical” man’s day-to-day activities, and then administering an intelligence test to both groups7.

15. These studies have had the following results:

a. Stereotype threat – women perform worse in the stereotype threat condition than in the stereotype-neutral condition.

b. Stereotype priming – both males and females perform worse in the female stereotype priming condition than in the male stereotype priming condition. Some differences in performance between men and women in the male stereotype condition are present, with males performing better, but only by a small margin.

16. So these studies confirm that there is more to performance in a certain field than actual ability.

17. So, if it’s not a matter of ability, why are women under-represented in scientific fields? Self-efficacy issues, as explored above, probably give the best indication, from a sociocognitive perspective.

18. Other factors (more on the sociostructural side) are present though: longer workweeks/days, incompatibility of lab/research-driven work where timing is critical and family life, women still bearing the brunt of domestic responsibilities even while involved in full-time work, sexual harassment, increased visibility (which is a double-edged sword: female scientists may make more of an impression, but any mistakes they make are also easily recalled), and not being seen as “feminine” if working in an non-traditional field, etc. Many of these factors are not restricted to science-based occupations.

So this is the basic gist of what I found. It’s actually really good to see psychology take an interest in social factors and to recognise problems faced by women rather than normalising these issues or attributing them to neural properties and organisation. The women most of the studies looked at were of a certain age, class, race, culture, etc like I mentioned before – it would have been very nice, but too much to ask for I suppose, to see the juxtaposition of different characteristics being examined in conjunction with gender – for example, the effect of socioeconomic status on gendered test performance.

Of course, it’s not just women’s potential not being fully realised that prompted all this research. In order for companies/research centres/countries to remain scientifically and technologically competitive, they need a larger pool of talented individuals to draw from – which is why at least some of this research was commissioned/funded. Viva capitalism!

And another note of personal interest – an overwhelming majority of the papers on gender differences in terms of ability and occupational pursuits have female authors. This is unsurprising, as the authors (themselves women in science-related fields) would have inevitably come up against some of these barriers, whereas many of these issues would have probably never occurred to most of their male peers.

It should go without saying that this summary (and this blog) is my intellectual property and that using any part of it without proper acknowledgements, referencing and my permission is plagiarism – so don’t do it!

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1. I find it amusing that my “outline” of the lit review is actually over two thirds of the total number of words of the actual review…
2. I don’t have any references handy for the sex/gender distinction, and I haven’t looked at it from a psychology perspective yet. Generally, “sex” refers to the biology of sexual organs and characteristics, while “gender” refers to the complex performance tied into the supposed representation of biological gender. Both are also different to “sexuality”, which refers to sexual preference(s) and practices. All three factors are cultural constructs that defy simple classification and division (which hasn’t stopped people from trying), and they can all work independently of each other. One of the best-known quotes that sums up the performativity of gender belongs to Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.”
3. A great paper on the social cognitive theory of gender development is: Bussey, K., & Bandura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation. Psychological Review, 106(4), 676-713.
4. Teig, S., & Susskind, J. E. (2008). Truck driver or nurse? The impact of gender roles and occupational status on children’s occupational preferences. Sex Roles, 58(11-12), 848-863.
5. A good discussion on self-efficacy beliefs in: Bussey & Bandura, 1999 and in: Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Vittorio Caprara, G., & Pastorelli, C. (2001). Self-efficacy beliefs as shapers of children’s aspirations and career trajectories. Child Development, 72(1), 187-206.
6. Stereotype threat study discussed in: Lesko, A. C., & Corpus, J. H. (2006). Discounting the Difficult: How High Math-Identified Women Respond to Stereotype Threat. Sex Roles, 54(1-2), 113-125.
7. Stereotype priming study discussed in: Ortner, T. M., & Sieverding, M. (2008). Where are the gender differences? Male priming boosts spatial skills in women. Sex Roles, 59(3-4), 274-281.

This is not the complete reference list I used for the lit review. I can post the whole list if anyone feels like doing some reading on the topic. I used 12 papers for the lit review but read about double that number, and in total I have 38 references on this topic in my EndNote library.

Visualisation

I wonder if other people use visualisation while studying. I don’t mean visualising the study material, but self-visualisation.

On this grey, unpromising day, I have to study for my first exam this semester. It’s on Perception, and I expect the exam to be very difficult.

So – I’m using visualisation to de-stress and to promote a good working environment. To do so, I’m imagining myself in a cottage somewhere in a dense forest, poring over tomes of physiology and notes. I’m trying to promote a sense of isolation from the rest of the world, including any distractions. (Or will be, once I submit this post and put the laptop away.) It’s just me and the books here, and my mug of tea, and this day.