Memory is a tricky thing. That’s a concept Assistant Professor of Psychology Daniel Peterson is diving into with his new research on human cognition. The research is backed by the James S. McDonnell Foundation, which has awarded him a grant of $600,000 over period of several year period.
Peterson is exploring the concepts behind why people remember and forget what they do, and what happens when people retrieve information. There are several theories currently circulating about this process, but none have solid approval or affirmation.
“There’s one perspective that memories are kind of like books, you take a book off a shelf, and when you’re done with it, you return it in kind of an unchanged format, but we have ample research that suggests that’s actually a rather poor analogy for the process of retrieving information,” Peterson said.
Instead of putting the books back unchanged, the information is most likely changed in some way. Peterson also points out that retrieving information once makes subsequent retrieval much easier. This phenomenon is well-documented, but from a theoretical standpoint, still poorly understood.
In order to collect data on this phenomenon, Peterson works in his lab in SMC with research assistants and volunteers from the student body. In a research session, volunteers are placed in front of computer screens and presented with the steps for phlebotomy, or drawing blood. It’s a process that most students are unfamiliar with, but is very sequential in its nature. The students are then presented with the information in one of two ways: Half are presented with a restudy condition where they were presented with the same steps as before, and the other half is asked to recall the steps in a retrieval practice condition. They are asked to recreate the steps later, therefore retrieving the information and seeing how well they did.
Peterson originally became interested in psychology when he was studying business as an undergraduate at UNC. He took a cognitive psychology class and immediately became very enthralled in it.
“It was one of those courses that every day I was excited to go to, and learn what we were talking about, and I thought that that was a good sign, so I approached that particular professor and asked to volunteer in his lab to see the more research end of this whole field, and I fell in love with that, too,” he said.
Peterson’s research plays a role in an expansive field of study about memory retrieval. Other scientists apply cognitive research to how students learn and absorb information in educational settings, and others research why memory starts to falter in old age.
“I view my work as kind of laying a foundation for more sorts of applied questions, like things in education,” Peterson said. “I’m just one of many people who are trying to build the foundation of what the basic building blocks of memory are and how they operate.”
Peterson is leaving Knox at the end of the academic year to start a teaching position at Skidmore College in New York, where he will continue to pursue his research. His grant lasts for eight years.
Peterson is appreciative of the support he’s found while researching here.
“It’s been great. I think Knox has been a great environment for the type of research that I do. They’ve been really supportive both in terms of time and finances, so I really have zero complaints. And the students have been great, too.”