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Psychology Graduate Student Dowell Earns Psi Chi Grant

Fri, 06/21/2019 - 10:29am | By: David Tisdale

Catherine Dowell, a University of Southern Mississippi (USM) doctoral student in its School of Psychology’s Brain and Behavior program, has earned a Summer Graduate Research Grant from Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology for her proposal, “Visual and Haptic Perception of Affordance Properties of Feelies.”

This most recent round of the Graduate Research Grants from Psi Chi for proposals submitted has a funding rate of just more than 19 percent. Dowell has worked with her USM faculty mentor, Dr. Alen Hajnal, director of the School of Psychology’s Brain and Behavior Program, on the project.

“I’m very excited that this grant will allow me to expand upon my current research with the feelies. They truly are fascinating and unusual objects that I’ve been interested in working with since I began perception research as an undergraduate,” Dowell said.

“With our new funds, we’ll be able to start a new project manipulating environmental conditions such as lighting and visual cues. Environment is a key aspect of affordance perception, something that we often study in our lab.”

Dowell and Dr. Hajnal considered using classic haptic stimuli, first created by the late J.J. Gibson, to compare perception by vision and touch, in formulating their research objectives. “These objects [stimuli] are unique in that they do not look like any familiar tool or object we would use in daily life,” Dr. Hajnal said. “In fact, the original “feelies,” as they are called, were created by a sculptor with the intention of being unique and novel, but also perhaps identifiable among similar other feelies.”

Dr, Hajnal said the research has practical applications for people who might have vision loss, “because it might reveal whether recognition by touch is equivalent to recognition by eyesight.”

“If it is, then the information also has to be multimodal and abstract. This is the ultimate question for researchers: In what format does the brain detect the information that specifies each object?

“Our research has taken the investigation a step further. We forced participants to think of ways they would be able to use these objects,” Dr. Hajnal continued. “Specifically, we asked about what actions these objects afford.”

The most frequent answers from participants in the study included throwing, and spinning. “Remarkably, we received very similar descriptions from people who only saw the objects, but were not allowed to touch them, and from another group of people who were allowed to touch them, but were not allowed to see them,” Dr. Hajnal said.

Dowell was involved in all aspects of the project, including initial brainstorming and experimental design, 3D printing of the object blueprints, testing human subjects, data processing and analysis, and drafting of a manuscript. She will present her findings at the International Conference of Perception and Action, a biannual conference of perception scientists from across the globe, in early July in Groningen, Netherlands.

A native of Hardinsburg, Kentucky, Dowell earned her master’s degree at Western Kentucky University under the supervision of Dr. Farley Norman, a perceptual psychologist with expertise in visual and haptic (sense of touch) perception of object qualities. After completing her program at USM, Dowell says she hopes to continue working in higher education in pursuit of her research goals.

As she completes her first year in her program, Dowell says all of the School of Psychology faculty members “have been incredibly supportive and encouraging.”

“They really want us to succeed, and do everything they can to help us accomplish our goals. Working with Dr. Hajnal is everything I’d hoped for when I was imagining my doctoral studies,” Dowell said. “He gives us the freedom to choose our research topics and conduct our experiments as we see fit, but is always there to teach us something new and guide us if we need help. He also helps me to learn from my mistakes without dwelling on them, as a good scientist should.”

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