The question of what makes us us—what determines the choices we make, the world we see and the way we speak—is arguably one of psychology's greatest and most compelling mysteries. It is also a topic rife with groundbreaking research. And every year the University of Washington invites a handful of the world's leading psychologists to deliver lectures on the newest advances in behavioral research.
Named after Allen Edwards, a former Washington professor who revolutionized psychology research with novel statistical techniques, the series delves into a hodgepodge of topics, from addiction to vision. In one of the lectures in 2010, for instance, University of Oregon psychologist Philip Fisher explains that childhood neglect is often a stronger predictor of future behavioral problems than abuse. Most people “think about kids being at risk because of bad things that happen to them,” he explains. But when there is an “absence of expected input from the world around them,” Fisher says, the physiological systems involved in stress, mood and emotions shut down, leaving children unable to cope with everyday problems.
Watching hour-long research lectures might sound tedious, but the presenters find creative ways to keep the audience engaged. In her talk, Jennifer Fewell, a professor of life sciences at Arizona State University, illustrates the importance of insect social networking—the way ants or bees collectively work together, which Fewell believes can provide insight into individual behavior—using a professional basketball team, the Phoenix Suns. The Suns have been successful, in part, because point guard Steve Nash passes the ball quickly and never to just one teammate, making it difficult for defenders to know where it is heading, she says. But when superstar Shaquille O'Neal joined the team in 2008, the Suns immediately started losing, most likely because he destroyed the team's dynamics. “Everybody there on the floor knew where that ball was going to go—it was going to go to Shaq,” she explains. “It's a good example that the success of an individual depends on the network, and the success of the network depends on the individual.”
Among the most interesting recent lectures are two dedicated to our brain's unique capacity for language. “The truly amazing thing about humans is that we can transmit an essentially limitless set of meanings to other people,” notes Lee Osterhout, a psychology professor at Washington, in one lecture. “We don't know where the limits are, if there are any.” In a way, the lecture series as a whole makes this point: it is astounding how much knowledge each talk imparts about behavior through just an hour of spoken language.
—Melinda Wenner Moyer