Researcher profile: Timothy J. Graham

Timothy J. Graham is a University of Manitoba graduate student researching visually guided actions. A undergraduate of Wilfrid Laurier University, Graham’s interest lies in “universal principles of behaviour and in finding real, demonstrable answers to questions.” The Gradzette sat down with Graham to talk about his research and interests.

Gradzette: What drew you to study psychology?

Timothy J. Graham: I’ve always had a general interest in people and their behaviour. I’m very interested in not only what people think, but why they think it. When I was younger this took root as an intense interest in issues like politics and religion. In fact, I was admitted into undergrad (at Wilfrid Laurier University) as part of the religion and culture department with the intention of declaring a major in political science.

As time went on, and especially as I was introduced to ideas from psychology, these fields seemed to be increasingly inadequate. While they are important in their own right, poli-sci, religious studies, anthropology/sociology don’t actually seek to answer questions about why or how humans behave so much as they describe that behaviour through dominant narratives (conservatism, Judaism, feminism, post-colonialism, etc.).

My interest has always been in more universal principles of behaviour and in finding real, demonstrable answers to questions. As such, psychological science seemed to be a better fit for what I wanted to pursue.

G: Where do you get your ideas and main research questions from?

TJG: Generally speaking, my theoretical approach to psychology is that of “functionalism.” This means, when I put together new ideas, or generate new research questions, my main concern is what function the behaviour or concept serves to the individual. This function can be at many levels, such as the behaviour providing an evolutionary benefit or the behaviour being developed through a person’s life to serve some purpose.

G: What research are you currently conducting?

TJG: My current research deals with how visual information is used to guide simple hand movements, essentially eye-hand coordination. The study has subjects reach to grasp a target object while navigating their hand around an obstacle, placed at various positions between the subject and the target. The goal is to try and describe how and when visual information is used to guide the hand. Essentially, what function does vision provide while we act? What visual information does an individual prioritize as relevant and how does this prioritization impact how a behaviour is performed?

G: What was your initial interest in this field of research?

TJG: My research as an undergraduate dealt with visual perception and attention. Research into basic perception is fascinating and very worthwhile; however, I am personally interested in attempting to describe behaviour in more realistic settings.

James Gibson described visual perception as active rather than passive, meaning that what we see and pay attention to is not merely a passive recreation of the world around us, but is shaped by what we want to do in the environment. This has been backed up by research that shows there is a difference between just looking at an item and looking at it with the intent to use it. Thus, my interest in this field came from wishing to move what I had learned during undergraduate work into this vision-for-action paradigm.

G: How is this research important and what benefits can it have?

TJG: This depends a lot on what is meant by “important.” I tend to be of the belief that knowledge in and of itself has value, so answering any question is important as it provides new knowledge that humanity didn’t have prior. More directly, reaching to grasp objects is fundamentally the way humans interact with their environment. For us, and our evolutionary ancestors, the ability to interact with objects through reaching, the ability to view objects as potential tools, underlie what fundamentally shaped human physiology and cognition. Therefore, by understanding more about reaching we can understand, at the most basic level, what it means for humans to interact with their environment.

Additionally, this research has direct implications for clinical disorders. Many neurological issues also present errors in the control of the limbs or eyes, and having a base of knowledge that says how this behaviour is observed in a healthy population can illuminate early detection of neurological decay or even suggest possible methods of rehabilitation. This research could also provide some insight into how to better design robotic equipment or user interfaces for human-computer interactions.

G: How is the research conducted?

TJG: Subjects are fitted with an eye-tracking headband and several infrared sensors on their index, thumb and wrist. On each trial, they reach out and grasp a target object and place it in front of themselves. Data is collected from the eyes and arm and sent into a single software package used by our lab. From this, we are able to look at positions of the eyes and hand in a shared coordinate system, something that technology is just now allowing researchers to do.

G: What do you see as the main challenge for your research field in the future?

TJG: Most research into the coordination of vision and action falls into one of two categories, mainly because of technological limitations. Research into simple movements tend to use a lot of computer generated objects and unrealistic scenarios, whereas research into more complex movement and real world environments sacrifices much of the specificity available with simpler designs and tends to focus on broader sequences of actions. There are exceptions and as technology improves so will this gulf. However, at this point it is very difficult to bridge the gap between the specificity available in simple, lab based experiments and the realism offered by less controlled settings.

G: What career goals do you have for the future?

TJG: My immediate goals are obviously to finish my graduate work and hopefully find employment in academia. Beyond that, broadly speaking, I want to move forward the idea of functionalism as a driving method of explanation in psychology, much like evolution informs biology. I would love to be able to describe even the more enigmatic parts of the human mind—conscious experience, for instance—as being a byproduct of neurological systems that played an adaptive and functional role for our evolutionary ancestors or in how these systems provide a specific functional benefit to us as individuals, given the unique experiences we have had in our lives.

G: When you’re not working, how do you “escape” from your work?

TJG: I’m a news junkie.

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