I’m just over halfway through teaching an intensive introduction to research methods in cognitive science right now. We’re discussing experiment logic, research ethics, and a variety of methods researchers can use to learn about cognition and behavior. The students are practicing scientific thinking, both in our class discussions and in their writing assignments. You can check out some of the fantastic work they’re doing on our class blog.

This is my first time as instructor of record, and the class meets for a 7 hours each week, so I knew from the start that there would be many challenges. One difficulty I hadn’t anticipated is how difficult it is to really gauge what the students are learning. Like really learning, not just memorizing or considering at a surface level. I’m trying a bunch of strategies that would seem to help with this challenge. Like:

  • Asking “What questions do you have?” instead of “Do you have questions?” a subtle difference that suggests I expect them to have questions and invite them to ask.
  • Building in lots of metacognitive or “formative assessment” opportunities — activities like homework reflections and in-class conceptual questions that are attempted individually and in small groups. These are intended to provide us all the chance to catch misconceptions or topics the students are unclear on.
  • An interim survey, asking students whether the pace of the class is too fast, too slow, or just right, and to describe elements of the class that are working for them and others that could be changed to improve their learning.

These strategies are all helping to some extent. Students are asking questions during class, we’re clarifying lecture topics in our group discussions, and the survey feedback indicated that for the most part, class speed, format, and expectations are all going fine.

Yet each time I leave class, I can’t with much confidence answer: Are the students really getting it? After the first few classes, this lingering question frustrated me. Of course one way to assess learning is through tests. We will have an exam, where I can get a sense of how well the students can repeat the content of my lectures back, and even how well they can apply the concepts I taught to new contexts, but of course tests can’t perfectly reflect what individual students have learned. Plus, the exam will take place after the last class, when there’s no time to remedy conceptual gaps or misconceptions. The exam is not the answer to this challenge. How can I gauge true learning in the meantime?

Since the first few classes, I’ve started to make peace with the fact that I might always leave class feeling less than 100% confident that the students really grasped whatever I was trying to convey. I’ve accepted the fact that gauging learning is really hard, especially in a class like this, where the primary goal is to lay a conceptual foundation that can be applied to research or scientific literacy later on. It’s hard, but I’ve learned and implemented the strategies I mentioned above because they chip away at the challenge. Realistically, I’m not going to be able to always know precisely what’s clear and what’s not (the students themselves can’t even always be expected to know if they’re clear on something). I’ll just have to keep trying to get as close as I can.


Refugee for a day: A glimpse into the ugliness and the beauty humans are capable of

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

But mostly, it was the worst, as 300 exhausted passengers fended for themselves to find cots at 3am in Boston’s Logan Airport.

At first we were mildly frustrated, as we waited 3 hours at the gate for our flight that was continually delayed for mechanical reasons. Our frustration grew when we then learned that our flight was canceled for the evening: “Sorry, folks, we’re not going to be able to fly out tonight. Please go to counter 36 for more information and hotel vouchers.”

We vacillated between hope and despair as we waited for 5 more hours for hotel vouchers and new flight reservations that never materialized for most of us. We started seeing glimmers of hope in everything (A man with a suit! He’s coming to fix the problem!). By 3am even our mirages were put to rest when an announcement informed us that there were no more available hotels in the Boston area and that we would receive more information at 10am.

Based on the avoidant airline personnel we had encountered to that point, few people were surprised when 10am came and went, and we had received no update. By 2pm, we were receiving new tickets for a flight that would take off at 5. By 8pm, after another delay because the flight crew had been stuck in traffic on their way to airport, we were out of emotions. A converted air tanker took off over the Atlantic Ocean 29 hours after scheduled departure with over 300 zombies on board.

During those 29 hours, my fellow passengers and I witnessed some of the ugliness humans are capable of. Some people jogged and jostled each other each time an announcement directed us to form yet another line – for hotel vouchers, meal tickets, or new boarding passes. At random intervals, a new passenger would break down and start shouting, so the state police came to make sure things remained civil. When the airport employees brought “food” and drinks to the line of people waiting for nonexistent hotel vouchers, some people rushed to grab what they could from the stash of mini water bottles and bags of Cheez-Its that made you wonder if someone in the factory had snagged a handful before sealing the bag with 5 crackers in it.

Some people were hesitant to leave the ticketing area, so they brought their cots over to not lose their place in line.

Our mass sleepover in Logan airport was uncomfortable and denigrating, but for every sneer there were many smiles. We were not happy to be stuck in an airport, but the fact was that we were there. We got to know each other, we commiserated and, somehow, we laughed. I learned that to a Brit, Cheez-Its taste like sweaty socks. We shared – iPhones for those who needed to make calls, sweatshirts (because damn, air conditioned airports are really cold when you don’t have a blanket), and the coveted cots and blankets once we got our hands on them.

A week after this debacle, I still look back and cringe at this experience. But the entire time, I knew I’d get to a comfortable bed eventually where I could sleep for 11 hours. I knew I’d have a good meal and a glass of wine at the end of the trip. When I stopped griping for a moment, I realized that knowing that those comforts were in my near future was a lot more than many people can say, as they find themselves wondering where they’ll sleep tonight, tomorrow night, and for the foreseeable future. We lived like refugees for one night, and it was a pain. But many people do it for years.



Depression & its metaphors

Depression is high on my Incredibly-important-topics-that-we-humans-struggle-to-make-sense-of list (with a list at least I can impose some order on things that are nearly impossible to grapple with otherwise). It’s prevalent — within a single year, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 6.7% of American adults over age 18 have struggle with depression.

And depression is really hard to wrap our heads around, whether we’re experiencing it or not. For one, we can’t really see it — people with depression look just like people without. Depression continues to challenge scientists — why do some people experience depression while others don’t? Why do some treatments work for certain patients and not for others?

Even though it’s a challenge to really understand depression, we still find ways to make some sense of it. One of those ways is through metaphor. We describe depression in terms of things we have more concrete experience with — enemies in war, darkness, lowness, or burdens, for example. Metaphors can both reflect and shape our thoughts about concepts like depression. Research gives some glimpses into the relationship between the metaphors we use to describe depression and how we think about it or actually feel. But there’s still so much we don’t know about depression metaphors and their effects on cognition. Here I present some of what research does reveal, sprinkled with my own speculation.


Depression as down

Depressed by Sander van der Wel. CC BY-SA.

In English, it’s common to talk about sadness as feeling down. Depression is not the same as sadness, but it’s also often associated with being physically low. One reason might be that when we’re feeling sad or depressed, our bodies are often slouched or closer to the ground than when we’re feeling great. This idea that our natural bodily experiences, for example hanging our heads or looking down when we feel depressed, can give rise to conventional linguistic metaphors like “down in the dumps” is called Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT). CMT’s main claim is that linguistic metaphors reflect the way we already think about concepts. In other words, we say we need a “pick-me-up” because in our minds, depression is down in the same way that the ground is down. The literal and figurative meanings of depression are associated in mind.

Depression as an enemy

Depression can be something that people fight or slay, or they may be beaten or attacked by it. On one hand, this might be a productive framing, since it implies that people can do something about their situation. They can choose the most appropriate weapons in their arsenal to strike back against their depression enemy.

But for the same reason, the enemy frame may be counterproductive. Many aspects of depression are outside a person’s control, which can be especially hard to understand if we haven’t personally experienced it. In this case, suggesting that a person should fight harder or better may backfire, implying that someone who doesn’t seem to be able to beat depression is too weak. There’s a fine line here.

Depression as darkness

Darkness is another common metaphor for talking about depression. The origins may be similar to talking about depression as being down. When it’s cloudy or rainy, we often feel a more blah than when the sun is out (this association is especially relevant for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder).

Again, talking about cloudy and rainy days as a basis for understanding depression conflates very normal sadness with depression, and clinical depression is so much more than a cloudy day feeling. But our experiences with dark, cloudy days may create a foundation for thinking about both common sadness and depression. Even when we’re indoors, dark spaces are often associated with fatigue and negative feelings.

Depression as a physical burden

It’s also common to think of depression as a physical burden we carry around. Fortunately, burdens can be unloaded, and research has documented positive experiences in psychotherapy can bring about a feeling of unloading a depression burden.

In fact, dynamicity seems to be a productive feature of many depression metaphors. Just as a burden can be unloaded, things that are dark can be brightened, low can be lifted, and enemies can be defeated (or become allies). Even though these metaphors are quite different on the surface, they also have similarities and seem to be compatible with each other.

Depression as multiple things at once

We mix metaphors naturally in speech. Referring to depression an enemy, for example, doesn’t mean I won’t then refer to it as a being down or dark (or that someone else I’m conversing with won’t, as you can see in the short Twitter exchange that follows):

This next tweet also shows a blend of multiple metaphors. The text refers to hitting “rock bottom,” while the image shows a dark cloud. The words and image “say” different things, but we naturally integrate them into one mental image of a low, dark depression.

And depression can be a dark enemy:

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 1.50.44 PM.png

Or a dark physical burden:

These mixed metaphors aren’t confusing at all. We don’t feel like the simultaneous depiction of depression as being both dark and a burden conflict because depression can be both things at once. Metaphors don’t create rigid structures that define our thoughts, but instead they create templates for thinking that can be overlapped and mixed and matched.

Are there ideal metaphors for depression?

On the whole, probably not. Each person will have their own preferred metaphors for making sense of depression. It’s key to be conscientious of the metaphors you encounter and produce, and to evaluate what they imply about mental illness. And if no conventional metaphors seem fitting, you might try designing your own or considering Bruce Springsteen’s comparison of depression to a car:

I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?

More Reading:

4 years later: Why write this blog?

My blog is 4 years old today!

My first post was called Why write this blog? I was a fourth year undergrad, less than a week from graduation. Now I’m a fourth year PhD student, and uh… more than a week from graduation. Are the reasons I began blogging the same as the reasons I continue to blog?

Why I started blogging 4 years ago

I love to write, but writing in an online forum, where anyone could be sitting at their computer reading my thoughts, has always made me feel too exposed and vulnerable. Time to get over that, especially since I hope to go into academia, where putting myself “out there” will be a key to success.

There’s a funny paradox: on the one hand I want people to read what I write, but on the other, it can be paralyzing to actually think about people reading it when I’m trying to get words out. I deal with this by imagining that only a few people will read. I imagine someone who’s my quintessential audience. Usually, that’s my mom (you’re reading, right, mom?!). She’s educated and curious, but she’s not a cognitive scientist. She’s my ideal reader. So I imagine my mom reading, and no one else, and I just go with it.

It’s still hard to express your thoughts when you think smart people are listening and might criticize them. It took me a long time to be able to do this in person — in group meetings and talks — and I have no idea if my blog helped me with that. Throughout grad school, my relationship with criticism has evolved. Criticism is almost always an opportunity for improving your work, and actually has very little to do with me as a person. When I think of it that way, criticism is something to seek out, not to avoid.

I want to keep learning, reading, and thinking about thinking, and I think the best way to do this is to collaborate as much as possible. I’ve loved having frequent opportunities during college for cog sci dialogues with so many people, and I don’t want to give those dialogues up.

Occasionally people engage with my posts in the comments or on social media, and it’s great to have those conversations. But realistically, this blog is a

It’s  not the ideal platform for dialogue that I had hoped, but that’s ok.

I want to be a better reader, writer, and thinker, and this link convinced me that a blog is probably a good way to achieve that goal. In it, Maria Konnikova writes:

“What am I doing but honing my ability to think, research, analyze, and write—the core skills required to complete a dissertation? And I’m doing so, I would argue, in a far more effective fashion than I would ever be able to do were I to keep to a more traditional academia-only route.”

Spot on.

Why I still blog today

When I started blogging, I couldn’t entirely anticipate what my blogging experience would actually be like. Four years later, I may have even more reasons to blog than I did when I started.

My blog is somewhat of a lab. I can try things out – like a vlog, an infographic, or that megaphone graphic above. Do they make my posts more engaging? I don’t know, but I’m testing them out. If they flop, no harm done. I experiment with different topics, and I can use metrics that show me numbers of page views and how those readers got to my site for a rough idea of what resonates with people and how they’re finding my blog.

My blog also acts as an archive. It documents events like conferences and workshops I’ve attended, getting married, and the 2016 Presidential election, all through the lens of language and thought. My past posts help me recommend a book to a friend or find a paper I know I liked but can’t remember why. And it gives me ample opportunities for laughing at my past self. Like did it occur to me that acknowledging my college graduation by writing a post about euthenics at Vassar was maybe a bit perverse??

And I blog because it’s fun. It’s challenging, and it’s creative, and I make the rules. Some of my motivations might be unique, but it turns out I’m not alone in blogging “for the love of words.” In a recent post on her blog, From the Lab Bench, Paige Jarreau compares science bloggers’ reasons for blogging to Orwell’s “four great motives for writing.”

I’m a long-range thinker, but I don’t think I would have predicted when I clicked the “PUBLISH” button for the first time that I’d be clicking it for many of the same reasons four years later.

Is my research me-search?

I recently listened to the inaugural episode of a new academic psychology podcast called The Black Goat (the podcast is great, by the way!). During the show, the hosts (Sanjay Srivastava, Alexa Tullett, and Simine Vazire) answered a question from an anonymous letter-writer who commented: I’ve been wondering how important it is to feel personally invested in what you study, like if it needs to be related to a part of you or your life that you care deeply about. The question was: should my research be me-search?

Me-search… I’d never heard of that term before. From the question and the hosts’ discussion, it seems that me-search is research driven by the researcher’s identity. It’s research that reflects something about the person doing it. Maybe it’s something you feel personally invested in for some reason beyond the typical reasons people are invested in their work: intellectual curiosity and because research progress means career progress.

On the one hand, it seems like it would be beneficial to be deeply passionate about the topic you research. That passion is more likely to lead to long-term motivation, which is crucial for academic research. Plus one for me-search.

But on the other hand, being personally invested in your research can be dangerous. If you really want a specific outcome, there’s a good chance you’ll get that outcome – whether that outcome actually reflects the state of the world or not. This doesn’t need to be intentional misconduct, either. For example, confirmation bias (which has been enjoying quite a bit of media spotlight lately) takes place when we (unintentionally) discount evidence that contradicts our prior belief, trust evidence that supports it, and even interpret neutral evidence as supporting that initial belief we held. (For more info, I have some past posts (1) (2)  that describe confirmation bias in more detail.) Minus one for me-search?

The hosts didn’t come to a conclusion, but instead weighed pros and cons of me-search, suggesting to me that moderate me-search (something you feel connected to, but maybe not on a life-or-death level) might be a happy medium.

So I asked myself: is my work me-search? It does incorporate things I love: I’ve always been fascinated with humans — observing them, describing them, analyzing how they work. I grew up with younger sisters who were identical twins, and they made great study subjects — I took ample advantage of this situation.

This is me with the world’s most fascinating study subjects

I’ve also always been interested in language. My hobbies have always been reading and writing, and I was practically salivating when I got to take my first foreign language class (French) in high school. Humans and language are my jamz.

I study how language, especially metaphor, shapes the way we think. This work definitely incorporates, and probably stems from, some things I love, but is it my identity? Not really. More obvious examples of me-search might be bench science that could contribute to a cure for a disease someone I love has. Or researching the personality traits of people who grew up with younger siblings who were identical twins (because that would be a fascinating line of research — at least to me!). But I don’t do those things. Even though I do believe that language shapes the way we think and perceive the world, and of course I want my findings to be interesting because research careers require interesting findings, I don’t have any identity-driven motivation to find any particular outcomes.

But after working on a line of work for years (only 4, in my case), how can it not be a part of you?

I’ve created a variety of different me-search definitions for myself, and the one I use at any given moment influences whether I think my current work is me-search.

I’m curious about other researchers’ ideas of me-search: do you think your work should be classified this way, and do you think it’s more of an advantage or a disadvantage to think of your work as me-search?

We marched for science

I’m a homebody. Most Saturday mornings are complete with tea, reading blogs or fiction, and getting in a good workout. This Saturday was different, and I’m glad it was.

The March for Science has been in the works for a few months. During that time, people have debated whether it will exacerbate political divides and whether scientists should be political activists; plans grew for satellite marches in over 600 cities around the world; and so many people mobilized to attend a march or support scientific causes.

I prepared by reading and thinking a lot about the role of science in society and potential consequences of marches and science-driven activism. My tentative conclusion from that reflection period was I’m in. I crocheted hats, designed a poster, and chose my wardrobe.

It was a cool experience to be in a place with tons of people all driven there by a common belief that science is crucial and a common priority to express that belief. It was fun to see creative signs, to come together with others in my department, and to hear some of the organized talks (especially those given by the middle school science fair winners – their projects sounded amazing!). But what blew my mind the most was the fact that people all around the world, from so many backgrounds, with different beliefs, opinions, and ideas, united around a cause that’s so much bigger than any individual person or country.

Let’s keep this going.

I wish I could carry 20 posters at the March for Science

This Saturday, science-lovers in over 400 cities around the globe will be marching for science. I’ll be marching in San Diego with friends and colleagues (and many strangers). This march takes a lot of planning — of course at the macro level, orchestrating an international (or even local) event is massive — but also at a much more micro level, for the people involved.

My first stage of planning was to read and think a lot about the march — the goals of marchers, the message it might send, and its downstream consequences. I worry that it will be perceived by some as a coastal elite and liberal rally against Trump — and for some marchers, it probably will be that, but I see it as an opportunity for us to celebrate science and affirm that it’s important in our lives. I also know the March for Science (DC) organization has experienced a lot of internal mayhem, and many of the original organizers are no longer with the group because of disagreements with the way the organization has proceeded. This march is not a cure-all. It will probably offend people (unintentionally, I hope), and we should actively work to avoid offense, but I am optimistic that the benefits of coming together for science can outweigh the inevitable negative aspects.

So I’ve decided it’s an event I want to be a part of. Next step: planning logistics.

I have an important wardrobe decision to make. I own so many great science t-shirts, but I have to choose one for the march. I’ll also wear one of the science hats I’ve crocheted (I’ve made 38 so far, so hopefully I come across lots of hatless marchers). I haven’t yet hammered out these wardrobe details.


I also have to decide my primary message for the march: What will I put on the poster that I carry? I’ve organized an event for people in my department to make posters together tomorrow afternoon, and I decided I should do some research to provide people with inspiration. What kinds of messages will be most productive? The San Diego march team created a helpful guide for poster messages. A quick Google search provided so many clever and seemingly effective poster possibilities that I’m nearly overwhelmed. Here are a few of my favorite messages (I’ve remade my own visuals with the help of Canva but borrowed the messages from around the Internet).


Stay tuned to find out my eventual wardrobe and sign decisions. There are so many great possibilities, and I’m looking forward to seeing the many ways that marchers express their love and commitment to science.





Cognition at Work: A Celebration of CogSci Designed & Executed by Undergrads

This past weekend I was invited to present at UCSD’s Cognitive Science Student Association‘s annual conference. The undergraduate CSSA leaders pulled off a polished and fascinating conference, focusing on the role of cognitive science in all kinds of work, from design, to mental health, to academic research.

In the first half of the workshop I gave, they asked me to talk about my journey to cognitive science: how did I discover I wanted to pursue CogSci, how did I end up at UCSD, and what might lie ahead? This is a fun story to tell. It includes growing up in a tiny Massachusetts town with fascinating identical twin sisters and supportive parents. It also includes my undergraduate years at Vassar College, where I accidentally found Cognitive Science and took classes that truly nurtured my intellectual side and inspired me to learn more. I discovered UCSD’s unique Cognitive Science program and was dead set on getting in — and somehow I did. I’ve been having a blast researching the relationship between language and the mind, working with brilliant people, and exploring other intellectual interests. I talked about the essential skills for doing a PhD, and in response to the question: “what next?” I was honest: I don’t know! But I expect it’ll be exciting. Here are the slides from that portion of the workshop.

The second half of the workshop was focused on my Cognitive Science research. The two Research Assistants who have helped me collect data on the projects I wanted to share (David and Yahan) also helped me give the talk. I’m SO proud of the work they put into this project and the presentation, and I’m confident they inspired other undergrads in the audience. David and Yahan showed them that undergraduates can do great research AND communicate about it (which can be just as hard as the research itself!).

David, Yahan, and I show our work.

Here’s a more legible version of our poster.

I left the conference feeling energized, and I hope many of the attendees did as well. It was a unique conference since most attendees were not there to promote their own work (since they were mainly undergrads). Of course there’s nothing wrong with academic conferences where promoting one’s work is a goal, but at this conference, attendees’ primary objectives were to learn, be inspired, and think about CogSci outside their classes. To me, it was a celebration of CogSci, and a great reminder of why I work in this really cool field at this really cool university.

What does it REALLY mean to do cognitive science research?

This week I responded to this question with the help from Richard Gao, a fellow UCSD Cog Sci blogger. We discussed what cognitive science research looks like for us — the kinds of questions we work on and the methods we use to address them. The post also gives readers a broader sample of research included under the cog sci umbrella and the overarching ideas that unite such diverse research topics.

Check out this post on The Q!

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons

Only one eye on the prize

From my journal, November 2015, my third year in grad school:


That gray silhouette is my mom. I call her most days, but sometimes we text instead. We probably spend half our time talking about daily life — yoga, work, what we’re cooking for dinner — and the other half of our time talking about our thoughts. My thoughts are often future-oriented. For example, I talk about trips that are scheduled for 6 months out as if they’re tomorrow because the future just always feels so imminent. I also talk a lot about my professional future, even though I’m not even sure what my professional goals are. I’m constantly asking myself (internally and aloud), what I can do to secure that all-fulfilling (and elusive) job that’ll allow me to positively impact the world, stay challenged, and help pay the bills for a comfortable home in a stimulating city.

My mom listens so much (thanks, Mom!). She validates my ideas, suggests other things to consider, and maybe most importantly, reminds me that the present is pretty great too. Goals are crucial, and we attain them by having our “eye on the prize.” But luckily we have two eyes. Our biological eyes may not be able to focus on two different things, but our metaphorical ones can. We can keep one eye on the prize while focusing the other on the present. When I do that, I remember that this current stage of my life — 4th year of my PhD, exploring different ways that metaphor shapes thought, in a mind-blowing Cognitive Science department in America’s Finest City — is pretty darn amazing.

For a while, this was the prize that I kept my eye on. When I was an undergrad at Vassar, as I started to learn more about language and cognitive science and more about research, I set my eye on graduate school, and soon after set my eye on THIS graduate school. I wanted to be accepted so much that I cried. Then I was accepted. I came to UCSD and started grad school. In typical human fashion, as the former prize became the present, I looked forward again to the next prize. Even though that next prize is still foggy in my mind, I know there must be a prize there, and I know I want to position myself as best as possible to attain it. So one eye will stay there. But as for the other…

Ocean Beach Pier, San Diego, CA. Photos By Clark. CC BY-NC