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‘It Is Very Inspiring When Someone From Outside Approves of What I Am Doing’

‘It Is Very Inspiring When Someone From Outside Approves of What I Am Doing’

Photo courtesy of Vladislav Khvostov

Vladislav Khvostov, a second-year student of the Doctoral School of Psychology at HSE University, was recognized with a Graduate Conference Award for Student Members from the Psychonomic Society. Every year a total of 20 graduate students in cognitive psychology receive this prestigious international award in psychology. HSE News Service spoke with Vladislav about the award, his interest in cognitive psychology and research.

The Award

There are a number of major conferences in cognitive psychology, and the Psychonomic Society is one of them. The conference is particularly broad in scope, covering all areas of cognitive psychology. Graduate Conference Awards for Student Members are awarded to graduate student presenters of the conference. To apply for the award, students must be the first author of a poster presented at the conference and submit an application that includes a description of their poster, their CV, a summary of their goals for participating in the 2020 Annual Meeting, and a research summary explaining how their research supports the mission of the Psychonomic Society.

The Psychonomic Society is a large scientific community with over 4000 cognitive psychology researchers from all over the world. The mission of the Psychonomic Society is to contribute to the development of cognitive science through the promotion and dissemination of fundamental research in experimental psychology and related sciences. Every year, the community presents awards of various ranks to its members: awards are received by both eminent scientists who have made a significant contribution to the development of cognitive psychology (the Clifford T. Morgan Distinguished Leadership Award) and graduate students (Graduate Conference Awards for Student Members).

The Project

The work that I am presenting at the Psychonomic Society conference (which will be held remotely from November 19 to 22 — ed.) focuses on the intersection of two important issues. The first of these is ensemble statistics. This is the study of how when you show a person a group of objects, they can say a lot about some statistical features of this group of objects in a record short time. For example, if I show a subject a lot of circles of different sizes for a fraction of a second and ask them about the average size of these circles, they can answer quite accurately. This is surprising because a lot of research shows that our attention and working memory are very limited, and we cannot see all objects in such a short time. But at the same time, some general view of them allows us to determine a lot of statistical features of these objects (size, color, etc.). This is called ensemble statistics.

The second issue concerns the so-called sign of ‘animality’. In visual cognitive psychology, there is such a thing as a sign. The size, color, and orientation of an object are simple features (there is a specific group of neurons in the visual cortex that responds to the specific meaning of these features). But in the cognitive community, there is also a lot of discussion that in addition to simple signs there are more complex ones, and one of them, studied in the last 50 years, is so-called ‘animacy’. That is, there are studies that show that if you show people an object for an ultra-short time, despite the fact that they cannot identify it, they will determine whether it is alive or inanimate. In our study, we combine these two issues and try to find out if the visual system can calculate ensemble statistics for a complex trait such as animacy.

Conducting Experiments and Working in San Diego, California

We began working on this study in March 2019, when I, my colleague at the Laboratory of Cognitive Research, Yury Markov, and our academic advisor Igor Utochkin, went to the University of California at San Diego to visit Professor Timothy Brady under a laboratory grant. It was there that we conducted our experiments, because cognitive psychology is, first of all, an experimental science. We presented the subjects with a set of objects, some of which were alive and others not, and they had to answer which objects were larger. From the subjects’s perspective, the procedure worked like this: they came to our laboratory, sat down at the computer, and we gave them instructions and explained what we mean by the term ‘animate’. Then there were quite a few trials with many objects, during which they responded by pressing certain keys on the keyboard to indicate whether the objects were living or non-living.

We ran several experiments with about 30 subjects each. We wanted to find out whether people can quickly — in 350 milliseconds — and simultaneously for all objects determine their animacy and, on the basis of this, answer whether there were more animate or inanimate objects

In the end, we determined that people are in fact not able to quickly determine the animacy of many objects. However, our work on this study continues.

Favourite Area of Cognitive Psychology

The word ‘cognitive’ has its root in ‘cognition’ (or ‘perception’), and therefore our field of psychology studies a number of cognitive processes, which we divide into low-level and high-level processes. Low-level processes are basic processes such as perception or sensation, while high-level ones are thinking or decision-making, that is, very complex processes in which consciousness is involved and so on. My research interests very much coincide with the interests of the laboratory: I deal with perception, as well as attention and short-term memory. I deal with these issues not within one study but in different projects. One of the most important topics for me and the lab is ensemble statistics. We have conducted a huge number of studies on this issue, and this is basically what my research is about.

Igor Utochkin, Laboratory Head, Laboratory for Cognitive Research

Igor Utochkin, Laboratory Head, Laboratory for Cognitive Research

The study that we conducted with Vladislav and our colleagues shows that the ability of the visual system to calculate ensemble statistics is not unlimited: a complex feature of objects such as animacy is very problematic for extracting ensemble information. This study is part of a larger project of the HSE Laboratory for Cognitive Research. In the project, we are trying to understand what kind of ensemble information is available to the visual system, and how this information can be used to solve everyday tasks, such as finding a desired object among other objects or instantly categorizing a set of objects.

In addition to ensemble statistics, the Laboratory conducts many studies related to other visual processes: attention, short-term memory, and long-term memory. However, our interests are not limited to this. At the Laboratory for Cognitive Research there are several relatively independent research groups that also study the processing of verbal information, emotional information, imagination, and creativity.

Future Plans

My plans are still being determined. I will defend my thesis and earn my PhD from HSE. After that, in an ideal world, I would like to get a postdoc at a foreign university. But it depends not only on me, so I can’t try and predict. On the whole, I like working both at HSE and in Russia. Bracketing a few drawbacks, I do not dream of leaving Russia for good. It seems to me that working as a postdoc and then perhaps returning is a great idea, because a change of place and research topics and expanding your horizons in research is great.

It would be nice to get a postdoctoral fellowship in the USA, because that is where a large percentage of people are who work on my topics. The US is the center of the field of cognitive psychology that I’m interested in. Among the recipients of the Graduate Conference Awards for Student Members, there are 17 people from the US and the other three are from Russia, Canada, and Germany, respectively. Therefore, when it comes to how I feel about receiving the award, then, of course, it is very inspiring when someone from outside approves of what I am doing. This is good without a prize, but it's definitely even better with it.

In addition, for me this is an example of the fact that while studying in Russia, you can also receive international awards. Of course, it is more difficult for us than for foreign students, but still it all depends on how much your laboratory and your academic advisor are internationally oriented. If you want to do international research in Russia, you can do it here. It is more difficult, but it is possible.

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