As students at UC San Diego, we have a very unique opportunity to participate in undergraduate research on campus. However, many people don’t know that you can participate in research without actually doing any research, by being the guinea pig in many on-campus experiments. Through SONA, an online scheduling system, you can volunteer in psychology and cognitive science experiments and gain an insider’s view on how research is conducted.
I recently participated in a cognitive science study in the lab of a professor whose research deals with how our brains determine meaning and interpret sensory inputs. Going into the experiment, I was told nothing about what specifically was being tested, as is customary with most psychological experiments since knowing what is being tested will change the way you perform on the test. After I arrived, the undergraduate lab assistant placed dozens of electrodes all over my head, using a gel as a conduit for the electrical charges. This method is commonly referred to as electroencephalography, or EEG, and takes advantage of the electrical signals propagating between neurons, using them as a measure of brain activity.
Afterwards, the researchers showed me my own brain waves. At first, I was underwhelmed; it just looked like eight horizontal lines on different sections of the screen. But when the operator told me to focus on one line and move my eyes left and right, the line dramatically shifted up and down. Then my focus shifted to another line that oscillated every time I blinked, and finally, when I ground my teeth, I saw every line on the screen scatter into clouds of multicolored dots all blending together. In much of biology and in neuroscience specifically, so much of what we study is conceptual and in many ways intangible to us, and so being able to actually physically look at my own brain waves moving was an amazing experience that more than made up for the two hours of continuous testing that followed.
An EEG provides neurologists with a very interesting window to study the neurobiological effects of conditions like seizures and strokes, but more recently, studies have begun to employ EEG to learn more about the way that we think and how we can perceive language by looking at which areas of the brain are active during language processing.
If you’d like to know more about the specifics of the cognitive/neuroscience experiments going on on campus, I highly encourage you to participate in a study and get a backstage pass to university research.