An academic speaker series presenting captivating psychological findings from professors, researchers, and graduate students aimed to inspire, spark conversation, and cultivate curiosity.
Dr. Richard McNally: Anxiety
Anxiety has affected most of us directly. More so than not, we’ve all experienced some levels of anxiety, whether it’s feeling nervous, restless, tense or breathing rapidly, sweating, and even trembling. These symptoms are unmistakable feelings and can even become debilitating. Dr. Richard McNally, the Director of Clinical Training at Harvard University, sheds light into how anxiety surpasses the threshold from being a normal evolutionary adaptation to a mental disorder. Besides the severity levels one can experience, there are also a variety of diagnostic forms that it can take. Some include general (GAD), specific phobias, and panic disorders. During our discussion, we pick apart which are the most prevalent and traverse the different techniques that can help alleviate feelings of anxiety from an expert who has spent the past few decades researching this psychopathology. Dr. McNally provides concise details about the disorder and valuable take-aways that’ll help any person navigate the distressing effects of anxiety. Listen for these types of insights and more.
Dr. Shimon Edelman: Consciousness
Each of our interpretations of the world around us is nuanced from one person to the next. In a way, consciousness can be loosely understood to be the representations we make of the world around us. It's in these representations that are computed, much like a computer. (Cue in "Computational Psychology"; the application of computational principles to understand human behavior.) And furthermore, the fact that it's a live system, makes it unique because now evolution is also playing a role in these processes and "there's pressure for presentation to be useful". Dr. Shimon Edelman, a faculty professor of psychology at Cornell, explains how we make these different representations during our conversation. His theoretical approach bridges many gaps in order to pave the way for more empirical endeavors in the realm of consciousness. We discuss how our sense, including our feelings, play a role in the construction of our realities. Dr. Edelman takes us on a deep dive into the psyche where we unpack how machine-like our minds can be and the manners in which we come to create the world around us.
Dr. Sam Gershman: What Makes Us Smart
What makes us smart? This is the overarching question that Dr. Sam Gershman is researching at this lab in Harvard's psychology department. How is it that we make so many mistakes as humans, such as certain cases of cognitive biases or heuristics, but on the other hand there are accounts of human cognition that suggest that we're somewhat close to functioning optimally? Is there a way to reconcile these two conflicting concepts? Dr. Gershman is investigating just that. During our discussion, he provides insight into how two sets of biases specifically (inductive and computational) are error-inducing and, simultaneously, make rational sense. What's most interesting is that his computational cognitive neuroscientific work isn't just limited to humans. He also looks at single-celled organisms to study their ability to learn. The findings he uses from these specimens provide additional fuel to theories and a richer understanding of how humans might neurobiologically acquire knowledge as well. Our conversation delves deep into a myriad of topics that will leave you in awe at how we get to be as smart as we are.
Dr. Tom Gilovich: Heuristics & Cognitive Biases
Two significant, yet rarely discussed in the mainstream, psychological phenomena are heuristics and cognitive biases. Heuristics, also known as “mental shortcuts”, are used to help us make judgements and, thus, decisions without having to exhaust a lot of mental energy. These sets of simple and efficient rules are an evolutionary adaptation meant to help us; however, in certain situations these rules are erroneous, thereby creating cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are an individual’s subjective construction of reality that influences the way they perceive and behave in the world. When cognitive biases can become harmful is when they lead to illogical interpretations and perceptual distortions of their immediate environment, leading to irrationality. We see this in a preference over one group versus another, towards people more like us, and in negotiations situations where “anchoring” is present, such as car leasing or purchasing. Cornell-based and Stanford-trained, Dr. Tom Gilovich has spent decades studying about what all of this means and why understanding heuristics and biases are so important to navigate the world more effectively. Listen to our conversation to hear his insights and more.
Dr. Yarrow Dunham: Processes of Knowledge Acquisition
As a developing child, one of our most important tasks is to make meaning of the world around us. We do it subconsciously, picking up on small minute details of our social environment, collecting them in a mental database, and putting them through a meaning-making process. This is a simplistic way of describing our process of knowledge acquisition. With the help of Dr. Yarrow Dunham, a Harvard-trained, Yale-tenured professor of psychology, we’re provided a nuanced insight into what processes take place in the realm of intergroup social cognition. How do children make sense of socially constructed entities, such as the paper we use as currency and the diplomas that can represent our educational self-worth? How do we determine fairness between in-group and out-group members? And how do culturally specific biases play a role? All of these questions make up just a sliver of what Dr. Dunham is set to investigate. We’ll touch on these topics and more during our conversation.
Dr. Margaret Clark: Emotions & Relationships
We all experience an intricate range of emotions daily. Yet what kind of roles do they play in our close relationships? How do our abilities to read emotions in other people affect the quality of these connections? Moreover, how does it affect our own cognition? Does it have the potential to interrupt or facilitate our own lives? These are the types of questions that Dr. Margaret Clark has been working on answering in her lab at Yale. Besides her decorated background in social psychology and academia, she’s actively working towards understanding the processes that promote supportive close interpersonal relationships. She believes emotions play a significant role in how these interactions play out. However, our emotions don’t just “happen”, Dr. Clark argues that we construct them. Hear more about this constructivist theory of emotions and much more during our conversation.