Tag Archive | "Department of Psychology"

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Babies Time Their Smiles to Make Their Moms Smile Back

UM News


As part of a National Science Foundation effort to use robots to better understand human development, researchers programmed a toddler-like robot to behave like the babies they studied. Photo courtesy of UC San Diego.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (September 23, 2015) — Why do babies smile at their parents? Are they trying to achieve something or is it a random act? In the September 23 issue of PLOS ONE, a team of computer scientists, roboticists, and developmental psychologists confirm what most parents already suspect: when babies smile, they do so with a purpose—to make the person they interact with smile back.

In addition, babies reach that goal by using sophisticated timing, much like comedians who time their jokes to maximize audience response. But there is a twist: babies seem to be doing this while smiling as little as possible. Read the full story

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Neuroscientist Teams Up with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue on Mindfulness Study

Special to UM News


Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey and UM neuroscientist Amishi Jha

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (July 13, 2015) – The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department will partner with University of Miami neuroscientist Amishi Jha on an innovative research study to investigate how mindfulness and relaxation training can help firefighters better cope with the high stress and challenging nature of their demanding service.

A recent study by Jha and her colleagues suggests that mindfulness training bolsters cognitive performance in pre-deployment military populations, and may be useful in other high-stress, high-performance cohorts.

“Our program aims to understand if the human attention system can be made stronger and more effective using these training programs,” said Jha, associate professor of psychology and director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the UMindfulness Initiative.

Jha, the lead researcher on the study, is collaborating with Scott Rogers, director of programs and training for the UMindfulness Initiative and of UM Law’s Mindfulness in Law Program. Their previous research found that mindfulness training helps curb mind wandering and improves attention as high-stress undergraduates near exam season. Jha will begin the new project this summer, with Rogers delivering an innovative mindfulness and relaxation training program to Miami-Dade firefighters.

The Jha-fire rescue collaboration is one phase of a larger research project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, which aims to determine if mindfulness and relaxation training might help protect individuals in high-stress, high-demand careers—an area of interest that is drawing national attention.

“These programs have been found to reduce stress, improve sleep and mood, as well as protect against depression and improve relationships,” Jha said. “Through our work with the military, we’ve also found that mindfulness- and relaxation-based brain fitness programs improves memory, attention, and situational awareness.”

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey said, “We know that even though firefighters are strong and resilient, we, too, may suffer from the high pressures and stresses of our daily work.”

Gary Gonzalez, a retired battalion chief for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, has been practicing mindfulness for nearly two years. “There is no question it would have improved my work performance, my leadership and decision-making skills, and my ability to more effectively manage the stress of the job if I had started 20 years ago,” he said. “I wish I was given the opportunity to learn this brain fitness program while I was still working.”

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Autism Researchers Discover Age-Specific Brain Changes

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Autism Researchers Discover Age-Specific Brain Changes

UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (March 20, 2015) – The field of autism research has tried to find a central theory underlying brain changes associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Now, a new University of Miami study shows that individuals with the disorder exhibit different patterns of brain connectivity than typically developing (TD) individuals and that these patterns adjust as the individual ages.

“Our findings suggest that developmental stage must be taken into account to accurately build models that show how the brains of individuals with autism differ from neurotypical individuals,” said Lucina Uddin, assistant professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences and corresponding author of the study. “We believe that taking a developmental approach to examining brain connectivity in autism is critical for predicting response to treatment in young children with ASD.”

The human brain is composed of more than one trillion cells called neurons. They interact with one another to form complex signaling networks. Previous studies have identified patterns of both functional hypo- and hyper-connectivity of these signaling networks in individuals with ASD. Published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical, the study, “Developmental Changes in Large-Scale Network Connectivity in Autism,” attempts to explain these conflicting results by indicating that the developmental stage of the individual plays a key role.

The key findings include:

  • Children (ages 7 to 11) with ASD exhibit hyper-connectivity within large-scale brain networks as well as decreased between-network connectivity when compared to TD children.
  • Adolescents (ages 11 to 18) with ASD do not differ in within-network connectivity, but have a decrease in between-network connectivity when compared to TD adolescents.
  • Adults (older than 18) with ASD show neither within- nor between-network differences in functional connectivity compared with typical adults.

The findings suggest that alterations in the networks of the brain’s cortex may trigger the complex behavioral characteristics observed in individuals with ASD.

“This study helps us understand the functional organization of brain networks and how they change across the lifespan in autism,” said Jason S. Nomi, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at UM and lead author of the study.

The researchers are currently working to explicitly characterize an important developmental transition in individuals with autism: the onset of puberty.

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Minds at Attention: UM Study Shows Soldiers Benefit from Pre-Deployment Mindfulness Training

Special to UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (February 11, 2015) – Rather than the calm before the storm, the period before soldiers are deployed to a conflict zone can be a time of intense stress. Soldiers receive intensive training for their missions and prepare themselves psychologically to leave loved ones behind to face dangerous, high-stress situations. Although the goal of the predeployment period is to ensure that soldiers are prepared for the mission, studies have shown the presence of impaired cognitive functioning and psychological health during this critical interval.

Amid continuing deployments of U.S. soldiers to the world hotspots to assist in missions related to fighting terrorism or the Ebola virus, a University of Miami study led by neuroscientist Amishi Jha has made a significant discovery that expands increasing scientific evidence that one of the best ways to protect soldiers may be by training their minds.

The success of military operations requires that a high volume of information, arriving at a fast pace under potentially ambiguous circumstances, be used to make quick decisions and take decisive action. Yet, access to the best intelligence or equipment is of little use if a soldier’s mind is distracted. Errors resulting from a soldier’s own attentional lapses may lead to lifelong suffering due to physical, psychological, or moral injury.

“Soldiers are experts at standing at attention,” said Jha, associate professor in the Department of Psychology in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator of the study. “However, maintaining a mind at attention under the intense physical, emotional, and cognitive demands they face is a more difficult task.”

Attentional lapses and mind wandering (or off-task thinking) signal a distracted mind that is prone to errors. Jha’s study demonstrated a positive link between mindfulness training (MT) and protection against attentional lapses and mind wandering. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware and attentive of the present moment without emotional reactivity or volatility.

Jha’s prior research found that military service members who received 24 hours of MT benefited in their mood and cognitive performance based on how much time they spent engaging in mindfulness practices daily. The current study went a step further, seeking to investigate which aspects of MT programs work best to curb attentional lapses and mind wandering when training is shortened to eight hours over eight weeks.

The results of the study, funded by the U.S. Army, are significant because during the stress-filled and high-demand predeployment period, soldiers do not have the time to devote to a lengthier MT regimen. However, this is a time period in which they may need it most.

Likewise, the findings are important for civilians in high-stress, high-performance jobs in which time is extremely limited. “Moment-to-moment information from the environment is necessary to ensure quick, decisive action. In addition to soldiers, police officers, firefighters, trauma surgeons, day traders, pilots, and athletes may all benefit from short-form mindfulness training to curb attentional lapses and mind wandering,” added Jha.

“With the continued deployment of our soldiers to face complex threats around the world, these results are a critical addition to our ever-evolving readiness and resiliency toolkit,” said MG Walter Piatt, Deputy Commanding General of the U.S. Army in Europe. “Ensuring our men and women are both mentally and physically prepared is essential to mission success,” he said. “This study provides important information to help us do that.”

The researchers studied three groups of military service members, offering MT to two of the groups, comprising a total of 75 soldiers at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, eight to ten months before deployment to Afghanistan. The study measured attention and performance by looking at the impact of short-form MT on soldiers’ results on a Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART), a test designed to measure attentional lapses and mind wandering.

One of the two groups receiving MT received a type of mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT), which emphasized engagement in MT exercises during each of the class meetings. The second group received a version of MMFT primarily comprising didactic information and discussions focused on stress and resilience. The third group of 17 U.S. Marine reservists tested during their predeployment training interval received no training and served as a military control group. The study also included a civilian group that also received no training.

While the SART scores in civilians remained stable over eight weeks of typical civilian life, scores significantly declined in the military control group, underscoring the deleterious effects of the demands of predeployment interval on attention. After the eight-week course, the MT group with training emphasis outperformed the group with the didactic emphasis as well as the no-training military control group.

Soldiers in both groups who received MT reported being more aware of their attention compared to the military control group at the end of the eight weeks.

In sum, scientists found that training-focused MT promotes cognitive resilience by protecting against degradation of attention during high-stress periods.

The study, “Minds ‘at Attention’: Mindfulness Training Curbs Attentional Lapses in Military Cohorts,” is published online ahead of print by PLOS ONE. Additional authors who contributed to the study are: Alexandra B. Morrison, Ph.D., Suzanne Parker, and Nina Rostrup, of the University of Miami, Justin Dainer-Best, of the University of Texas at Austin, and Elizabeth A. Stanley, Ph.D., of the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of Government, Georgetown University. She is the creator of MMFT and a member of the board of directors of the Mind Fitness Training Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) established to support the delivery of MMFT.


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Rod Wellens, Longtime Chair of Psychology, Passes Away

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Rod Wellens, Longtime Chair of Psychology, Passes Away

By Annette Gallagher
UM News

UM's Department of Psychology experienced tremendous growth during Rod Wellens' tenure as chair.

Rod Wellens

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (December 19, 2014) — Albert Rodney “Rod” Wellens, professor and longtime chair of the Department of Psychology who left an indelible mark on the University, the community, and the people he mentored, passed away at home and surrounded by his family on December 17 after an illness. He was 68.

Wellens, who joined the University in 1972, became a full professor in 1988 and chair of the psychology department in 1992—a post he held with distinction until 2013. Read the full story

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