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Psyched

This fall, the psychology department welcomed two new assistant professors, Koleen McCrink, who is teaching “Developmental Psychology” and “Introduction to Psychology,” and Joshua New, also teaching an introductory course as well as courses on cognitive psychology. Barnard Magazine caught up with both professors in the early weeks of classes to discuss their work and settling in to Morningside Heights.

Though their areas of study diverge, both are impressed by the caliber of students they have found at the College. “Barnard students are so bright,” says Professor McCrink, who has taught at Rutgers, Yale, and Harvard, “and so fearless in the classroom in such a non-confrontational way. They are a total pleasure.”

“I’m just getting to know the students, but they seem superb,” says Professor New, who comes to Barnard after doing post-doctoral work at Yale. “I am teaching ‘Intro to Psychology,’ so there are a lot of first- and second-years, but I’m impressed with their level of commitment even early on in their college careers.”

Professor Koleen McCrink

Fall semester has just begun. Have you adjusted to Barnard life?

I actually got here July 1, and was very busy starting up my lab, so it’s been great to have the students here now and shift gears a bit, even though it’s hectic!

What will you study in the lab?

The lab is called the Center for Developmental Studies and my focus is on mathematical logic. We’re studying infants, children, and adults and how they think about numbers—specifically numerical operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

Was your initial area of interest mathematics or psychology?

Definitely psychology. Luckily, the math I have to use to for what I study is very basic, or I’d be in trouble!

Could you describe your area of inquiry?

What I study is really “number sense”: the intuitive ability to estimate numbers of objects, and reason how those numbers relate to each other. Research suggests this form of reasoning is innate, meaning it’s built in, which is why you can find this sense in infants as young as 3 months old.

How do you know what a 3-month-old thinks about numbers?

It’s probably easiest to explain how we test these things generally, and then with infants specifically. We present subjects with a set of, say, five objects on a screen. Then we add, maybe five more. Then we show them an outcome of either 10 or 20 of those objects and ask them which set looks correct. With kids and adults it’s relatively easy; they can just answer you. With infants, staring is the main measure. We track “looking time” or “length of gaze.” If something looks off to humans, we stare at it longer to process it. This is actually an ancient way that people function. If we were in a car and drove past 10 brown cows, then one albino cow, the albino cow would hold our gaze because it’s not what we expected. It turns out babies as young as 3-months old are remarkably good at expecting five objects and another five objects to equal 10 objects.

Has setting up the lab been easier or more difficult than you expected?

It’s been challenging, but I wouldn’t say difficult. In fact, there’s been so much student interest it’s really been great. I already have between five and 10 undergraduate-research assistants signed on to do independent-study work.

Professor Joshua New

What is your specific area of study?

My background is in evolutionary psychology, which is one of the newer fields, and my studies focus on perception and cognition—the idea that if you look at an object, the process of recognizing it is up to a certain point purely vision, but that process of vision has to match some kind of knowledge in order for you to understand what the object is, and what significance to give it. So I am basically looking at perception and cognition to see how it’s been shaped by millions of years.

Can you give an example?

The easiest one is that people tend to focus on other people and animals more than they do on objects. Studies have shown that if you put up a photo on a screen and then put up another with a tiny change in it, if the change is to a person or animal of any kind it’s detected very quickly. If the change is to an object—say, a plant—it’s detected much later. This is understandable from an evolutionary perspective—it makes much more sense to notice people or animals if you are trying to survive on the African plains. But in a modern environment, if we are thinking about what could cause us the most harm, we really should be looking more closely at the automobile. My graduate work at the University of California–Santa Barbara, focused on this.

My post-doctoral research [at Yale] took this premise and asked: Could this just be a bias toward the social? So we tested whether or not this same bias [toward people and animals] could be found among people on the autism spectrum, who are very disconnected socially. Our subjects fell into a a wide range of [disability], but we found that their level of impairment had no effect. They still oriented more quickly to people and animals than to objects, which is a somewhat surprising, counter-intuitive finding.

What will you study at Barnard?

I’m just setting up my lab now. It will be a visual cognition lab, and we’ll probably be looking at social attention, and what kind of visual cues people use to make what they are saying look real or intentionally fake. When we watch someone talk, our eyes are dancing around their whole face. To listen and understand them, we employ a whole constellation of mechanisms that haven’t really been unearthed yet.

-by Karen Schwartz '93, photograph by Kate Ryan '09