Conference Recap: Association for Psychological Science 2013

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The 25th annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) was held last week in Washington, D.C., and I was there to take it all in, and to present some work I did on developmental changes in different kinds of learning.

Attending conferences is an important part of the job for researchers. Conferences are a great place to learn about new projects, develop collaborations, and to really have fun with a bunch of people who share your interests (if you’re in DC and like beer, go to Birch & Barley/Churchkey and try the Sauer Porter). And maybe most important of all, conferences are one of the rare opportunities available to see familiar faces from the past, like former mentors and advisers. I know that some of the faculty I worked with when I was an undergraduate played a big part in my decision to pursue a life in research, and APS is the only chance I’ll get to see them this year!

As far as conferences go, APS is really big and broad: if you want to get a sense of everything going on in the field of psychology, without focusing too much on any one topic, then this is the conference for you. I sat in on talks covering everything from the brain bases of emotion to the differences in thinking styles between political liberals and conservatives. Here are some of the overall highlights:

-Michael Gazzaniga gave the keynote talk, synthesizing 50 years of split-brain research. Sometimes, people with epilepsy have such persistent and powerful seizures, that they undergo surgery to sever the connections between the two halves of their brain (this is a real thing that works). Since the two halves of their brains are no longer able to communicate with each other, these patients give researchers a rare opportunity to explore the differences between the left and right sides of the brain, which has improved our understanding of how brain systems underlying things like language and vision are organized. Dr. Gazzaniga’s message was that the different parts of our brains are able to do their jobs and interact with each other without some kind of supervisory “master” brain area - in other words, our brains can behave like orchestras without conductors.

-I saw the real shock box used in the famous Milgram obedience to authority experiment!

-There was a cool series of talks looking at learning and memory in the brain, all the way down to the molecular level. Ted Abel discussed some specific proteins that affect learning in mice, and which might prove useful in designing new pharmaceutical treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Moving up a level, Michael Fanselow and Elizabeth Phelps gave separate talks about different parts of the brain that are important for classical conditioning (like Pavlov’s dog), specifically the conditioning and extinguishing of fear. Finally, Elizabeth Loftus talked about her work on false memories. It turns out that our memories are very susceptible to suggestion and errors, especially in stressful situations, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much we can do about it: even people who are trained to thrive under pressure (like soldiers and police) still fall prey to false memories.

-Joshua Greene gave a talk about his upcoming book, “Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.” The book looks at how we evolved to be cooperative in some situations, but not others, and how different thinking strategies might be better in some situations than others. For instance, when deciding whether to be cooperative with someone from another group, we’re really good at making moral decisions quickly, but when deciding how to best be cooperative (e.g. sharing a lot of fruit or sharing just a little), our slower thinking strategies may lead to more advantageous decisions.

People don’t always think of scientific research as a field built around personal relationships, but in the end, those relationships are what make science work, and conferences play a crucial role in developing and maintaining them.

Photo: Milgram obedience experiment shockbox (by Jim Kloet)

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