Office Hours: Spencer Kelly

Matt Knowles


Many think of their professors as teaching and grading machines, but it may surprise you to hear that pro­fessors are people, too! This column, Office Hours, is about taking the time to see different sides of our be­loved professors that are not regularly displayed in the classroom.

Spencer Kelly is an associate professor in the psychology de­partment who specializes in body language and how it accompanies spoken language.

“From a young age, I learned that a lot goes on, more than just words, in social interactions…eye gaze, body posture, hand gestures, all sorts of things,” Professor Kelly said.

Professor Kelly’s recent re­search has taken his specialty and applied it in new and unexpected ways. Inspired by student inter­est, one of Professor Kelly’s most exciting lines of work explores the role that hand gestures play in second language learning. In one study, Professor Kelly showed that brief instruction with gesture helps people learn new vocabulary items in Japanese.

Building on his work, he and Associate Professor of Japanese and Chair of East Asian Lan­guages and Literature (EALL) Yukari Hi­rata received a grant from the National Science Foundation, along with a grant from Colgate’s Picker Institute, to research how hand gestures affect learning novel speech sounds in Japanese. Kelly was surprised to learn that while emphasiz­ing lip movements is very helpful in teach­ing Japanese speech sounds, hand gestures are not. This went against all of his previous research on related topics.

Professor Kelly has gone to Ja­pan several times for his research, and intends to return this summer.

“If you could put opposites in terms of how they go about their daily lives, I would put Ameri­cans and Japanese across from one another.”

Professor Kelly pointed out his love for traveling and how, dur­ing his recent sabbatical, he trav­eled extensively through Europe giving talks.

In the broader world of psy­chology, Professor Kelly is also very interested in the study of aug­mented cognition, or the idea of using technology to augment one’s thinking. Augment­ed cogni­tion is the p r a c t i c e of using t e c h n o l ­ogy to aid the brain’s functions. An exam­ple of aug­m e n t e d cognition is to use Google or a search engine as a quick reference. Professor Kelly ad­mitted that as he ages, his mem­ory for small bits of information and trivia has gotten worse. He believes that this could very well be due to the fact that he can easily search any question on a search engine and instantly find the answer, negating the need for extensive memorization. An even more intense version of aug­mented cognition is called deep brain stimulation, or DBS. In DBS, electrodes are implanted in a patient’s brain to create a certain effect, such as producing dopamine, a neural chemical that produces happiness.

“We’re doing some incredible things…we’re becoming cyborgs to some extent. We’re implant­ing machines into our bodies,” Professor Kelly said.

Professor Kelly also brought up that we are only a short step away from being able to plant similar elec­trodes in a frontal cortex to augment memory, and that we are on the brink of many exciting breakthroughs in the realm of neuroscience. All-in-all, Professor Kelly is extremely optimis­tic about the future of psychology and loves his profession very much.

“It would make me a very happy man on my death bed if psychol­ogy works its way into everyday life to enhance people’s happiness, and it’s just starting to do that.”

Contact Matt Knowles at [email protected].