Student volunteers are subjecting themselves to some uncomfortable situations to help the Department of Psychology.
The volunteers are test subjects in studies concerning memory and cognitive abilities, including theories related to cognition under stress and pain.
Brian Tapscott, psychology graduate student, said the study on chronic pain is important because there are millions of Americans suffering from the condition. Tapscott said they are trying to replicate the conditions of chronic pain through a process called ‘cold pressing.’
“We take some ice, put it in a bucket of water, make it really cold, and we have people put their hand or feet in it,” said Joe Etherton, associate professor of psychology.
He said this process creates a moderate level of pain and volunteers experience the discomfort while doing simple mental exercises.
“One task would be hearing a series of numbers, like four, seven, nine, one, six, and then you would be asked to recall those numbers,” Etherton said.
He said the cold pressing tests a person’s ability to think and remember while in pain.
“This study is introducing healthy volunteers to see if pain does effect any cognitive abilities, like testing working memory, testing processing speed, [and] tests of verbal reasoning,” Etherton said.
Tapscott said cold pressing is a safe way to simulate chronic pain, as opposed to low-grade electric shocks and thermal heat. Test subjects put a hand or a foot in ice-cold water for a maximum of three minutes at a time, with breaks, over a twenty-minute period.
He said studying pain is difficult because pain is subjective. It is difficult to treat chronic pain.
“It is not as simple as taking a pill,” Tapscott said. “It’s much more complex than that.”
He said these studies could give an understanding of how to treat the condition.
The psychology department is also testing different theories about memory capacity growth. Etherton manages another psychology study called Cogmed, which universities across the country use to test the human brain’s ability to grow in memory capacity.
“The current school of thought is that working memory is a stable construct, and it can’t go beyond what you have,” said Jayson Rhoton, research track health psychology graduate. “We argue the opposite, that working memory can be expanded. It’s like any muscle. Once it’s trained, it can get bigger.”
The Cogmed study started this year. It starts with 40 volunteers doing pre-testing for four weeks, and another four weeks of post-testing after spring break.
Etherton said more experimentation is required to conclude memory capacity can grow. He said one question researchers are trying to answer is whether test participants are getting better at the specific tasks involved in the study, or if their increased skills can have implications for better cognitive function in general.
He said this research could be used to help stroke victims, people with traumatic brain injuries or individuals seeking to improve memory.