Alan Kingstone, the Head of UBC’s Department of Psychology, was recently elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, in recognition of his contributions to the fields of cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience. This distinction is the highest honor a Canadian scholar can achieve in the Arts, Humanities and Sciences.
ArtsWIRE spoke with Prof. Kingstone about the award, his work at UBC, and his passion for science.
Q: Congratulations on recently being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. What does this honor mean to you?
Kingstone: Thanks for the congratulations. To be honest, I’m really not sure what it means “to me”. I do know, however, that I am very pleased for UBC and for the Department of Psychology, which has a long history of RSC fellows (for instance, counting me, three of the last four Heads of Department in Psychology have been RSC Fellows).
It also simply underlines the fact that my students and research collaborators are absolutely world-class. So much of the work I’ve been part of would never have happened without their involvement.
Q: You studied for a year at McMaster University and completed your undergraduate degree at Trent University in Ontario. What was it that first sparked your interest in the field of psychology?
Kingstone: One year, I was asked to work in a lab over the summer as a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Undergraduate Researcher Student Awardee. I was hooked. Not because of the science, mind you – that came later – but because for the first time I realized that people might actually pay me to simply ask questions of my choice and then find the answers however I liked. It just blew me away. It still does.
Q: For readers who aren’t familiar with what being a psychologist really means, what does a typical weekday look like for you? What about your job makes you look forward to waking up in the morning?
Kingstone: A wonderful thing about psychology is that it’s an established field with a broad range, so it touches on a lot of important enduring issues. And yet it is still young enough a field so that there are plenty of opportunities for people to make their own individual contribution. So I doubt that my day is particularly similar to the typical day of another member of the Psychology Department here at UBC, let alone elsewhere in Canada and the world.
As for what gets me up in the morning, it’s the fact that my job doesn’t feel like a job. My lab is composed of a remarkable group of clever, social, motivated individuals, who generally keep me on my toes and very busy. So I run or bike into work early in the morning, and spend the first few hours trying to work on papers with my students or research collaborators. (By the way, the reason that I can slip out early in the morning is thanks to my long-term partner, Erica Levy, who has shouldered the lion’s share of our day-to-day matters, including the enormous job of caring for our two wonderful kids, Julian and Naomi. The fact that she has managed all this, and also made a number of outstanding contributions in our Dunbar community, is both humbling and a source of tremendous pride.)
Around 8 or 9 in the morning, I begin to transition into items that concern me as Head of the Department. There are many unexpected positives to being Head. In addition to being actively involved in trying to better the experience of academic science for students and faculty and staff alike, there is the unexpected bonus of getting to know so much more about the people in the department, their work and their personal lives. It gives me a new appreciation for just how amazing and high functioning the Psychology Department is, and why, by any objective member, we are the top psychology department in Canada, and one of the very best in the world. The support from the Faculty of Arts in general, and Gage Averill in particular, is well-placed and appreciated.
Q: You and two of your former students (Evan Risko and Tom Foulsham) developed the Collaborative Lecture Annotation System (CLAS), which enables students to virtually highlight key moments in class without having to take notes. What advantage does this system give UBC students?
Kingstone: The potential, is for students to watch lectures at home, on the bus, or in-person in class, and click a button on their phone or tablet or laptop, and mark for their later attention what they saw that was of importance or interest or, well, whatever happened a moment ago, that they want to see again. For them to study, or just have a laugh. They can also add annotations to what they saw, categorizing it, summarizing what they were thinking at that moment, and so on. That’s neat, but the cool thing is that they can then upload to share their highlights and annotations, and download the highlights and annotations of other students who saw the lecture, live or recorded, anywhere in the world. In this way the system is truly collaborative. Arts IT, led by Shane Dawson, is working with us on this product.
Instructors too can access this information (or not, depending on the settings) so that they too can learn how their material is being perceived, interpreted, and used. The potential within and beyond the classroom is vast and extremely exciting.
Q: You are interested in social attention, about how and why people look at the eyes of others. What are you finding?
Kingstone: The original work started over a decade ago, hard as that is for me to believe. At the time, I was told by a colleague that this was a silly thing to study. She still might be right of course, but the work has taken us, and many other researchers, into so many different areas of investigation that I’m inclined to believe that it might not be so silly after all.
This work includes studies with patients who have had the grave misfortune to experience a stroke, investigations with kids with autism, brain-imaging research with healthy individuals, studies with aged adults, computational modeling, and studies where we monitor where other people are looking.
What we’re finding is that among the many items in our environment that we might choose to look at, the eyes of other people have a special status. Indeed, their selection might be mediated by a distinct neural module. Human eyes give us great insights into what other people are thinking, feeling and intending to do. But getting that information in real life is a little tricky because to get it one has to look at the eyes of another person, which can reveal information to that person about oneself. So there’s a very sophisticated dance of looking that goes on between people, and we are only now beginning to get a sense of how this plays out and how it might change with different situations.
Q: You and your students are credited with founding the field of cognitive ethology, which seeks to ensure that research performed in psychology labs extends to more complex situations people experience in real life. Could you give us an example of when this link between lab and life fails to exist?
Kingstone: Here’s a trivial example, which relates directly to social attention.
In the lab we, and others, have studied how people look at faces, and have found that people will tend to look at the eyes of other people. Give a person a stranger’s face to look at on a computer screen, and they will happily look at the face — stare at it really — dwelling on the eyes for five or 10 seconds at a time.
In real life, have you ever seen someone do that? I doubt it. Sure people sneak glances at each other all the time, but to just walk up and stare at someone? It doesn’t tend to happen. And yet there are literally hundreds of studies like the one I described with a face on a computer screen, and that has little link to what people really do, to that sophisticated dance of looking at each other that we engage in. In short, one aim of cognitive ethology is to provide researchers with a tool that enables them to link their research with the real world phenomena they are targeting.
Q: I understand that you’ve been doing a fair amount of research in CIRS, the new ‘Green’ Building on campus. What does that involve?
Kingstone: Being part of the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) is truly one of the coolest things happening for me at the moment.
The building went live about a year ago, and in that time we’ve managed to run a number of studies, from the effect that the building has on creativity, to eating and recycling behaviours. Moreover, an unexpected offshoot of this work has been that the department, in full partnership with the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES), will be recruiting this year for a Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Sustainability. This is new territory for our department and for IRES, and truly captures the interdisciplinary zeitgeist of CIRS and our department.
Q: You are a sports fan, and your lab has done some research into the psychology of sports. Can you tell us a little about your research into tennis players who grunt while hitting the ball? Do they have an advantage over their opponents?
Kingstone: Argh! (That’s me grunting.) My wonderful student, Scott Sinnett, now a prof in Hawaii, is a fantastic tennis player who studies how our different senses, such as taste and smell, combine information to create a singular perception of reality.
We know that a visual event will ventriloquize a sound to its location (just like sound from your computer speaker is ventriloquized to images on your computer screen), and that got us to wondering if a grunt, when a ball is struck, gets localized to the location of the racquet, and whether this interferes with someone’s ability to perceive the flight of the ball of the racquet.
The short answer is, yes, it does, and the advantage gained by a grunter is substantial, as it delays the opponents ability to respond accurately to the ball until it has travelled up to an extra two feet in the air. At the top levels of tennis, this is huge.
Q: You’re still a young man. What one insight would you like to uncover about human behavior before your retire?
Kingstone: Still a young man. That’s rich. The one insight before I retire? How to know when it’s time to call it a day.
Alan Kingstone is the director of the Brain and Attention Research Lab at UBC.
His research interests include Cognitive ethology, cognitive neuroscience, social attention, and human behaviour.
In January 2013, he will be teaching a graduate class in Cognitive Neuroscience at the UBC Point Grey campus.