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October 26, 2000 Liberal Arts grad goes on to study neuroscience




Photo of Cathy Poulsen

Cathy Poulsen wears a Geodesic Sensor Net to collect EEG data at the laboratory where she is conducting post-doctoral research.

Photo of Norm Segalowitz and Cathy Poulsen

Poulsen with her supervisor, Professor Norm Segalowitz, at a celebration after her thesis defence.

by Sigalit Hoffman

Cathy Poulsen’s search for ways to enhance the experience of learning has taken her down some unexpected avenues.

Poulsen originally enrolled at another university to study psychology, but in search of a more rounded education, she applied to Concordia’s Liberal Arts College. With a BA in Psychology and Liberal Arts and a TESL Certificate (to teach English as a second language), she decided to do her Master’s research on why people who are fluent in a second language still read the language more slowly.

Enhancing word recognition

A typical response to the question is that people don’t have the right strategies to integrate the information, but Poulsen went beyond this explanation, and discovered that the difficulty of second-language reading lies in the fact that readers recognize fewer words automatically. Her data, and her work at Concordia that was based on it, have led to a change in the way some schools are thinking about the teaching of second languages, including a large-scale research program in Amsterdam that focuses on enhancing word recognition.

Her interest in the enhancement of learning also took her to Concordia’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance, led by Professor Philip Abrami, who calls her one of the brightest graduates Concordia has had for years. She was hired as a research coordinator, but her role grew until she was an active research member at the centre, co-authoring several papers and books with Abrami and giving seminars to teachers.

Cathy confirmed that her background in arts helped her in her scientific research. “I think it helped a lot to develop my creativity,” she said. “People often forget how much creativity there is in science.”

In her doctoral research, Cathy Poulsen found that although a task’s motivational value did not necessarily affect the speed at which it was completed, it did affect the ease with which subjects switched their attention between different components of the task.

She found that when people were engaged in an activity, motivation helped to guide their attention toward tasks of high motivational value and away from competing tasks that were lower in motivational value. The reverse, Poulsen noted, was not the case.

She also discovered that motivation can affect attention-control processes, which are often referred to as the central executive and are involved in high-level decision-making.

Attention-switching abilities

Cathy’s research could be the springboard from which researchers might one day understand what goes wrong in people affected by attention deficit disorder (ADD). In fact, a recent study found that children with the disorder had impairments in the attention-switching abilities Poulsen explored in her thesis.

Her thesis is novel, because it looks at how motivation affects our control of attention from moment to moment, an approach that no one else has taken. “One might think of motivation as a general arousal mechanism. One might expect that it would facilitate performance in a broad way,” she explained. “The interaction between attention and motivation can be very specific.”

Poulsen calls into question the charge that today’s children have a shorter attention span than previous generations. “Many times, an individual has an enormous capacity for attending to a task if they find that activity absorbing and motivating.”

She relates her research to the concept of flow, a state in which individuals are completely absorbed in a given task. It is during a flow state that people report the highest motivation and the highest level of performance, when the task seems effortless, even though it may, in fact, be very demanding.

The concept intrigues Poulsen because of “how it seems to unite attention, motivation and positive affect in a very strong way during performance, and how it enhances the experience of the learner and the performance itself.” In a classroom environment, for example, flow may be achieved through lively discussion.

Poulsen hopes to understand what’s going during these flow states by studying the cognitive processes underlying attention in the brain. Her post-doctoral research in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oregon expands on this question, by recording brain activity during tasks that differ in their motivational value.