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Mirror Labs: A Geographic Effect

Mirror Labs: A Geographic Effect

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The HSE Laboratory for Neurobiological Foundations of Cognitive Development (Neuropsy Lab) is one of 13 winners of the HSE Mirror Laboratories Competition and the only lab headed by an international faculty member. The Neuropsy Lab’s partner institution is the Scientific and Educational Centre for Interdisciplinary Research and Art Technologies based out of Ulyanovsk State University. The HSE Look spoke about this collaboration with the lab’s head – Dr Marie Arsalidou, Associate Professor at the HSE School of Psychology.

Dr Marie Arsalidou

What was the rationale to add a ‘mirror’ dimension to the lab’s profile?

It was a logical step in our gradual development. First, we received funding from the Russian Science Foundation in 2017. Then, we were granted the status of an Education Research Lab and obtained additional funding from the Russian Basic Research Foundation. Then, we awarded with ‘mirror lab’ status. This new commitment runs for three years, up until 2022.

The HSE Mirror Lab Project allows us to reach out to other cities throughout Russia. Moscow is the most densely populated part of Russia and has many schools. We have worked with hundreds of children in Moscow already. Then, we started to ask whether children's cognitive abilities develop the same way in major urban settings like Moscow as in smaller cities like Ulyanovsk. So, we do hope that we can provide opportunities for children from across the country to participate in this research. For instance, as some of our research in now online, parents from anywhere in Russia can register here.

HSE University’s Mirror Laboratories Project was launched in 2020 to promote research collaboration between the University and other Russian academic institutions. The geography of this project spans from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok and from Surgut to Krasnodar. Research activities are carried out by joint teams with a particular focus on involving young researchers and students. HSE University and partner institutions share equipment and data, research concepts and designs, as well as conduct joint workshops and training programmes.

Why Ulyanovsk State University?

My colleagues knew that the research team from Ulyanovsk were interested in working together, and I said ‘We're open to that, let's do it’. The first meeting with Dr Galina Pazekova, the head of the lab in Ulyanovsk, was held online. I sensed the benefits of this partnership from the first meeting, as we are both interested in cognitive development and have multi-disciplinary interests. The main thing is that we have common ground, whereby we want to assess children's abilities, as well as do this by applying different methods.

I have always wanted to reach out further, but not speaking Russian is not as easy. I speak several words in Russian, while Galina speaks basic English. However, we have been able to develop our communication and had a successful first year. Nevertheless, we face certain challenges: we toned to translate each other's work; our students get to translate during meetings and presentations. So, we can manage. I never doubted that this project would be possible, and technology makes things even easier.

What projects are you carrying out together?

We planned that our first studies would be in person, as we intended to do a longitudinal study where we would test children every several months across a three-year period. However, the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to move online.

The research we do is fun for kids because we present the experiments as games. They are generally concerned with mutual learning: we learn from the children and, we hope, they learn from us

A longitudinal study on the learning and neurocognitive abilities of school-age children is our main project with Ulyanovsk. In this regard, we are looking at mental attention, or how many things children can hold in their mind. When they enter school, theoretically, they should be able to hold three things in mind and, by the time they graduate, they should be able to process seven. We have lots of data confirming this from children in Toronto and Moscow. For example, one of the measures we use is an online game with balloons that change in terms of the number of their colours. We can consistently see that children in Canada and Moscow pass certain levels, and then they perform randomly at other levels. Can we see this particular process among children in Ulyanovsk? Can we see the progression as we expect, if we test the same children every few months?

The other project concerns categorical learning. It is also a fun experience for children, as we give them colourful stimuli – beautiful creatures with interesting shapes and faces – and they have to match them in terms of categories. These creatures belong to different categories based on their shapes or colors, and the children must identify which category they belong to. The ability to group features into categories is a fundamental stepping stone towards more sophisticated thinking.

The third project is about the process of hyper-focusing. Have you ever been in a gallery staring at a painting and forgot where you were? Have you read a book and immersed yourself in the text and did not hear anything around? Have you done home assignments and forgot to eat or drink? This is what’s called hyper-focusing.

When you are hyper-focusing you can apply a lot of energy to what you are doing at the moment, and shut down other things. We want to see how brain activity changes when you are switching in and out of this hyper-focusing process

We know that when you are studying you might need to hyper-focus, and some children might be able to hyper-focus more than others. We hope that our research might help clinicians who work with children experiencing attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders.

How do you delegate project tasks between Moscow and Ulyanovsk labs? How often do the team members communicate?

The hyper-focus project is being headed up by our colleagues in Ulyanovsk, and we assist from our side. The categorical learning and mental attention projects are run from our side, and they help.

There are 20 people on our team and 11 people on the Ulyanovsk team. We have regular mirror lab meetings every two weeks, where we discuss paperwork, reporting, and grant opportunities, and, as deemed necessary, meetings for specific projects. Sometimes, we visit Ulyanovsk, and this week, they are with us here in Moscow.

Any chance for an external audience to be engaged in the lab’s activities?

We are open about our science. Children, parents, and teachers are welcome to join in the lab activities. For example, in addition to the meetings we hold with our colleagues in Ulyanovsk, we hold seminars with a public school. Furthermore, some teenage students take part in short internships at the lab.

Science of Learning and Assessment is the name of a new multidisciplinary Master's programme, which starts this September at the HSE Institute of Education. This programme will train students to conduct research with individuals across their lifetime, utilizing methods drawn from such fields as neuroscience, psychometrics, biology, and computer science. The programme is offered in English and gives our students a competitive advantage with respect to carrying out research in Russia and abroad.

We are always happy to connect with the general community and offer learning opportunities to bright young minds.

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