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Researcher’s Featured Authors: A Discussion On Sensorimotor Effects with Alison Heard

Since Researcher launched in 2017, we have displayed millions of paper abstracts across multiple subjects and disciplines to over one million researchers and academics globally. We could analyse streams of data that pinpoint trends in academia and scientific publishing, but this fails, from an individualistic perspective, to uncover one of academia’s most important questions - ‘why?’. Why do researchers do their research and how did they arrive at their academic niche?

For this mini-series, we spoke with researchers across several disciplines, whose scientific papers have trended across the Researcher community. We gained insights into their papers, their experiences during the publishing process, and the challenges they faced throughout the entire research process. 


Alison Heard, from the University of Calgary, is the author of Getting A Grip On Sensorimotor Effects In Lexical-Semantic Processing, Behavior Research Methods. 

person kicking a football

Before we get into your paper, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you discovered your academic niche?


So, I originated at the University of Victoria which is in British Columbia, Canada. I started there in 2008, and I actually wasn’t originally interested in psychology whatsoever. I started with a biological sciences degree and took my first psych course as an elective. After that, I pretty much became addicted to the subject, switched my degree and went on to volunteer in several labs. I then moved onto my Master’s at the same university. Then in 2014, I chose to move to the University of Calgary for my PhD, because I was interested in moving into neuroscience methods, and they had a larger program that I could work through.

For those who might not be familiar with your area of expertise, and for those that may not have read your most recent article, could you provide us with a brief overview?


So I’ll take you a little bit further back than the paper, just because it’s helpful to understand some of the theory. Essentially the main theory we based this paper on is embodied cognition, and that’s the idea that your sensorimotor system is involved in your representation of meaning and language. 


To put that in layman’s terms, if I ask you to think about throwing a ball, your motor areas might activate in a similar way to which they would if you’re actually throwing a ball. So, they are participating in your representation of that meaning. So, a line of research that we use to investigate this is called semantic richness effects. This is simply how much information is associated with a word and it’s found to affect how quickly you process this word, and how easily you process it. The semantic dimensions that are involved in this vary quite broadly. 


We use a process called body-object interaction which measures just how easy the human body is able to interact with a word’s reference, so a ball for instance. This body object-interaction dimension is really coarse, so it’s capturing motor information that’s involved with your legs, for instance when you kick a ball, with your upper body when you pick up a ball, and all other types of motor information. 


There are other semantic dimensions that can be more specific, so upper limb or lower limb. We’re actually trying to adjudicate between whether this course dimension called BOI or these more specific dimensions would do a better job of capturing this process of deriving meaning from language.


What motivated you to look at this specific area in the first place?


It’s interesting that you’ve never thought about it because that’s kind of why I became so fascinated with it. Honestly, our ability to use and generate language and convey meaning is something that all of us do, and we do it for the most part effortlessly.


 Our process in which we are able to do this is just something that we still haven’t grasped, but it is what makes us very unique on this planet. I became hooked through this mystery.


Do you have any kind of hypothetical ideas about what we can uncover through this specific research?


Absolutely, so without putting any bounds on it, I think the more that we understand about how we are able to derive language as a human, I think it actually has implications to inform artificial intelligence. The more that we try to mimic human understanding requires a better understanding of humans in the first place. 


So a little bit less sci-fi and a little bit more academic is the idea that the more specific we get with our semantic dimensions, the more we are able to further advance our own understanding of the role of motor information in human cognition in general.


If you take cognitive psychology on a broader and wider scale, what do you believe are the biggest issues that your area faces at this moment in time?


I think one of the big issues which we were actually attempting to address in this paper, is the fact that we are starting to have a good understanding that motor and body information actually affects language processing. But we are now in a place where we can start to be more specific about the types of bodily and motor information that are contributing to this, and also what context modulates this process. 


I think the big issue is starting to get a bit more specific and use tools and methodologies that allow us to answer this question in a more fine-grained way.


With your own methodology you took a lot of undergraduates as a means to create your hypothesis, did you come under any challenges at all whilst creating this piece of research?


We definitely did recruit a large group of undergraduates and we are very lucky in that our undergraduates are able to receive extra credit towards some of their courses, for participating in these studies. So not only does it give them a chance to learn a little bit more about the types of research that are done in psychology, but it also gives us a really nice pool of participants to pull from. But with that being the case and because a lot of these ratings were collected online, we had a lot of people who didn’t complete the survey accurately or didn’t complete it at all. So there’s quite a stringent process in ensuring that we were getting validated responses from our participants. 


In addition to that, it is also difficult studying psycholinguistics and using words as stimuli, because you really want to make sure that you’re controlling for other effects that could possibly confound your findings. This could be, for example, the length of the word, or the frequency of the word that is used in language. So you always want to make sure that your list has a variety of those and it’s controlled for those effects. This can sometimes limit your stimuli pool.


With your own learning and development, have you got any goals, or do you want to accomplish something specific in your academic career?


For my long-term career goal, I’m actually thinking about pursuing a career in industry, because I’m very passionate about knowledge translation and research applications. I’d really like to work on making research more accessible to the general public, which is why I’m also very happy and honoured to be invited to speak today.


What is your one piece of advice for anybody now starting their PhD?


So, I think I’d have to say just be patient and kind to yourself. I was the type of person who entered the PhD going a million miles an hour. I wanted to accomplish everything, and I wanted to do it now. I wanted to get papers out really rapidly, but this type of work takes time, especially to develop the necessary understanding of the theories, to develop your own personal research skills and really just come into your own in whatever field you’ve chosen to go into. So just understand it’s going to take longer than you think and that might actually be a really good thing.

Tags: academic publishing, authors