Monday, April 9, 2007

More Speakers and Hands-on Opportunities: An improved Psychology Program for USC

This weeks post is in accordance with the 2007 University of Southern California’s College Dean’s Prize for the Enrichment of Student Academic Life. Responding to the following is required to gain candidacy for the award, “How would you go about making the educational experience at USC College even better?” My experience as a psychology student from the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences (top left) has been incredibly enriching and rewarding, yet, I feel that providing students with more real-world experience can improve the psychology program at USC. “Faculty in the Psychology Department are engaged in ground-breaking research on a wide range of topics,” however, students need to be given the opportunity to exploit their resources as well. USC’s strategic plan stresses the importance of focusing on the needs of students rather than the structure and needs of the teaching institution. It emphasizes an innovative “learner-centered” approach to education in which every student’s needs are taken into consideration. The document states, “Traditional lecture courses will decline, giving way to a variety of more flexible and interactive approaches to learning.” This can easily be accomplished by bring more speakers into the classroom and by providing students the opportunity to do more hands-on work.

Speakers expose students to a realm of reality that is not provided in textbooks of related material. Psychology Professor Patricia Mullins believes that speakers “are able to convey current, realistic information and a perspective on a subject that is not available from textbooks.” It is important to cater to the learning demands of all students. USC’s mission statement reads, “Our first priority as faculty and staff is the education of our students, from freshmen to postdoctorals, through a broad array of academic, professional, extracurricular and athletic programs of the first rank.” Some students can read a book and feel competent with the material, yet for others, day-to-day accounts from professionals on a subject area are more beneficial. In the psychology program, for instance, a professor for clinical psychology can invite a renowned cognitive behavior therapist, such as Albert Ellis who can enlighten with anecdotes and personal experiences as the creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Thus, providing students with direct accounts of the benefits and challenges in the field. This information can either turn a student away from a practice or inspire interest. In case of the latter, it is important for students to have an array of contacts in the professional arena and speakers are great for networking purposes.

Hence, another method for aiding students in the quest of career discovery is real world experience through hands-on work alongside experts. This can be made possible with the development of field-specific laboratories that would introduce students to a more realistic environment. Stanford psychology’s website asserts, “It has been the leading psychology department among American universities for decades.” Perhaps this is due to the seventeen laboratories located within the university. Such as, the cognitive development laboratory (seen to the right), and the mood and anxiety disorders laboratory, and are available for Stanford students to volunteer in. The interdisciplinary collaboration provided by these facilities is especially important for students who are indecisive or confused about what field to pursue. By volunteering in various laboratories the student will be able to narrow down the numerous options available. USC can provide a similar program. Laboratories would take months to build; thus, the equivalent can be accomplished through workshops where students, for instance, interact and assess behavior of children with autism or mental retardation as part of a child development course.

It is important for students to become active participants in their learning experience especially when there are so many available fields to follow and so little time to choose. Without experience it is difficult for a psychology scholar to be confident they are making the right career choice. “The central mission of the University of Southern California is the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.” The mind cannot fully be developed with mere classroom interaction. Individuals need exposure to the options allocated to every possible profession. Were this opportunity made possible, the psychology undergraduate would no longer experience emotions of perplexity when deciding what path to pursue.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Antonio Damasio: Possessor of Profound Understanding of Human Cognition

This weeks post is inspired by the University of Southern California’s honorary degree award. I will discuss who I think should be the next recipient of this prestigious prize. I have chosen a deserving individual in my field of study. Psychology has an array of different fields, therefore, narrowing the candidates down to a single person is a very difficult task. Yet, there is a remarkable psychologist who has made incredible innovative contributions to the field.. He is an internationally famous neuroscientist and a neurologist. He is a brilliant professor, head of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, author of a best selling book, and publisher of many well known papers, he is Antonio Damasio.

Antonio Damasio is a pioneer in the study of emotion. It is due to Damasio’s research that scientist have come to understand all concepts of the subject. He has conducted extensive work on the nature of the conscious and thoughts, and has been successful in discovering patterns that link consciousness to the brain and an individuals underlying emotions. Damasio says that; “‘thinking’ is done by patterns of nerve cell activation”, which means that people do not have much control over what they think, many thoughts are unconscious. His work, thus, contributes to all fields of study, as there are only small percentages of people who suffer from disorders in which emotions are not felt. His work can help the lawyer, teacher, dentist, social worker or architect, understand more about the emotions they feel and their everyday thoughts.

Damasio’s work is very original, in the past many felt that emotions were innate and therefore, took no interest in the study. However, Damasio developed a theory about their origin and has been persistent in finding answers and patterns that help explain where and how they are initiated. Bruce G Charlton, wrote in a review of Damasio’s "The Feeling of What Happens"; “he achieved the long sought-after integration of emotions into mainstream explanatory schema of cognitive neuroscience; so we can now understand emotions in exactly the same way we understand vision.” His book has been translated in over 30 languages and was nominated for numerous awards. Damasio has found patterns between the external world and internal brain activity, which he calls, cognitive representations. This is amazing information, it implies that mental psychological disorders can possibly be cured by examining patterns in never cell activity.

There are numerous talented and deserving psychologists, yet Damasio is especially deserving of the honorary degree because his research has rendered many encouraging and remarkable data that apply to all people, not just certain subgroups. His work on emotions has been linked to consciousness, thought, and intelligence. Damasio states that; “contrary to some popular notions, emotions do not ‘get in the way’ of rational thinking, instead emotions are essential to rationality.” Every field, every person strives to maintain rationality, it is not always easy to be rational, and some fields are very stressful, which leads to the experience of psychological turmoil. Hence, Damasio’s research is essential for the prevention of overwhelming emotions that interfere with the pursuit of successful career paths.

USC has a renowned psychology program and Damasio’s work is exceptionally influential. Damasio is currently a professor in the University and has received many grants to conduct his research. He has done numerous case studies of reasoning in people with neurological damage, people that do not register emotions the same way others do. For instance, their response to a fearful stimulus undergoes a different process than that experienced by the normal person. His work has been very successful and helps the department of psychology in USC gain additional recognition. For this, Antonio Damasio should be honored and present the opening speech to the upcoming graduating class.

Damasio has a extensive range of knowledge and can use his expertise in the area of emotions to provide the graduating students with advice that will help them succeed in future endeavors. Being that he is a professor he has contact with college students and is completely aware of what they are experiencing. Graduation brings many contradicting emotions. While it is a joyous occasion it is also a stressful one, as the future becomes more real. Damasio knows exactly how emotions are created and caused, therefore, he is the perfect candidate to address the students, calm their nerve-racking sentiments and provide motivation.