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]