While many students learn the basics of their field in the classroom, others are lucky enough to test out theories in a far more interesting way. For example, facing several monitors displaying heart rate, galvanic skin response, body temperature and real-time video all at once, a student from the School of Psychology analyzes the physiological reactions of a study participant. Welcome to the INSPIRE laboratory, where many projects like this one have come to life.
We asked Simon Beaudry, professor and lead manager of the lab, along with Andrea Ashbaugh and Martin Lalumière, professors in the School of Psychology, to tell us more.
Q: What is the INSPIRE lab?
Beaudry: INSPIRE stands for Integrated Neurocognitive and Social Psychophysiology Interdisciplinary Research Environment. The laboratory is at the crossroads of neuroscience and social sciences, and is one of the University of Ottawa’s interdisciplinary research centres.
The laboratory is located at the School of Psychology. Its physical space is designed to allow researchers to observe and understand the mysteries of human behavior by capturing, in real time, cognitive, social and psychological responses to stimuli presented via computer-controlled technology. Essentially, we get to study the mind and the body, simultaneously.
Q: What kind of research is done in the laboratory?
Beaudry: INSPIRE is a multidisciplinary lab, so our capabilities range from facilitating social research (like studies on leadership and motivation) to neuroscience and cognition research (like studies on brain functions and memory). Our wide variety of setups also allow researchers to conduct cutting edge research using advanced psychophysiological methods, like electromyography and cardiac impedance.
Ashbaugh: My research examines how fear memories can be updated. The work that I am conducting with Dr. Lalumière examines how anxiety influences sexual arousal. Both projects have implications for understanding basic human process as well as extending our understanding of a variety of mental health problems.
Q: How does the testing work?
Ashbaugh: Depending on the nature of the research, the use of the lab’s facilities can vary. For example, in my research we measure fear response using both self-report (e.g., the participant explains how much fear he or she is experiencing) and psychophysiological indicators of fear (e.g., galvanic skin response and facial electromyography). We develop fear in the lab using a fear conditioning paradigm where we pair a neutral stimulus with an aversive stimulus. In my basic fear research, the neutral stimulus is images of simple geometric shapes or a spider, whereas in the sex and anxiety research, the images are erotic. In both studies, the aversive stimulus is a mild shock that is uncomfortable, but not painful.
Q: Why is it important to have a laboratory like INSPIRE?
Lalumière: Without the facilities and expertise available through the INSPIRE lab, it would be difficult and very costly to conduct the research we are doing right now. The INSPIRE lab is an amazing interdisciplinary lab that provides many researchers with specialized equipment and shared facilities to conduct projects that require carefully timed presentation of material and measurement of both psychological and physiological responses, as well as a high-quality training environment for students.
Beaudry: In addition to supporting researchers, we try to play a big role in the student experience as well. We offer tours and demonstrations in many undergraduate research courses and help students discover that research can be really fascinating. Some lucky students even get the chance to volunteer in the lab! This type of specialized training really opens a lot of doors in the research world.
Q: What are your goals for INSPIRE in the years to come?
Beaudry: Our fifth anniversary is approaching, an important step for us. Our first few years were a time of learning and getting set up. They went smoothly.
One of our next key steps will be promoting the laboratory on a large scale. We got off to a quiet start, but now we have a lot to offer in terms of facilitating research on human behaviour, which is well beyond psychophysiology. My vision for INSPIRE in the next five years is a research centre recognized by the entire University community for its sophistication, excellent service to all researchers and user-friendliness. I envision a place researchers think of first when designing a research project involving humans.
Technological renewal is another priority for me. For INSPIRE to continue its mission, we must always be on the cutting edge of research in terms of training, techniques and technology. This could mean the integration of brain imaging or the development of virtual reality spaces to which physiological response measures are connected. All in all, we will continue to foster original ideas and encourage interdisciplinarity, which is our main objective.
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