It isn’t every day you get to attach electrodes to a National Public Radio host and run electric current through his prefrontal cortex. That’s what Mason psychology PhD student Melissa Scheldrup, MA Psychology ’14, got to do when NPR’s social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam came to Mason’s Fairfax Campus for his show Hidden Brain.
The technique is called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), and Vedantam was working on an episode about working memory and interruptions. Scheldrup ran the host through a Mason experiment using a video game called Warship Commander with and without tDCS, and he performed better at multitasking and protecting the warship during the brain stimulation part of the experiment. (You can hear that here .)
Scheldrup, who has been featured on two different episodes of Hidden Brain, is majoring in human factors and applied cognition, and her area of expertise is complex cognitive training and neuroenhancements. TDCS, which involves putting a headband around the study participant’s head, is something she did as a graduate research assistant in the Psychology Department’s Neuroergonomics Lab.
Before coming to Mason in 2012 for graduate study, Scheldrup had worked in other research labs. She watched rats run through mazes, ran MRIs, and even studied how hormones affect the brain development of sheep.
“After a while, I was like, you know what, I don’t think I want to do this type of research,” she says. “Pipettes were not my friend, and I had always really loved technology and was fascinated by how people used technology or could use technology in different ways.”
Looking for a way to bring together psychology (which she received her undergraduate degree in from Arizona State University) and technology, she turned to the internet. “So I searched it, and a long story short—George Mason came up. So I packed up, drove across the country, and moved here.”
For her own cognition research, Scheldrup is still working with video games, but instead of brain stimulation, she is using automated systems as tools to enhance training.
“The GPS in your phone is an example of automation tool,” she says. “The example I always give is: You’re in a new city, and you don’t know you’re going, but you use your automation tool—your phone—and it helps you get from Point A to Point B and that’s great. It did its job. But then your phone dies and you don’t know how to get back to Point A because the automation did everything for you and you didn’t pay attention.”
In her research for her dissertation, she is looking for what she calls “a Goldilocks zone” to determine how much automation and what type of automation one needs to stay engaged in a task, such as finding Point B and remembering the way.
In the video game, research subjects have a fleet of ships they must defend from incoming missiles. As they are learning how to do that, the game gives them suggestions on what actions to take. When they become more proficient at protecting the fleet, the suggestions stop.
“I’m looking at how well they do during training and the drop in their performance when the aid goes away,” she says.
She has found that the group—given three options instead of one suggestion—had more accurate mental models of the task. “The idea would be that the multiple options require them to actually think through and make a decision. They retain that and have less of a drop when we take away the aid.”
After she is finished with her dissertation, Scheldrup plans to continue her work with video games at a serious gaming and simulation company. “In general, we look for ways to help integrate simulation and serious gaming technologies to improve performance and safety.”