Monday, September 30, 2013

Celebrating 50 years of psychology at Emory

The old psychology building on the Quad, which served as headquarters for the department for decades.

By Carol Clark

In 387 BC, Plato proclaimed that the brain is the seat of mental processes. In 335 BC, Aristotle countered that all emotions originate in the heart, opening classical debates about the human mind and behavior.

“And the conversation continues,” said Marshall Duke, Candler Professor of Psychology.

Nowhere is that conversation livelier than Emory’s Department of Psychology, which recently celebrated its 50th year in its modern form with presentations on its evolution. Clinical work and research into depression, schizophrenia, autism-spectrum disorders, early childhood development, the mental health of families and the origins of human morality — those are a few of the areas in which Emory has, and continues, to make major contributions.

Duke, who joined the Emory faculty in 1970, kicked things off with a talk that sped through centuries of science.

During the 1830s, as German physician Ernst Weber laid a foundation for experimental psychology with his law of “just notable differences,” Emory College was founded.
Diagram of Phineas Gage's injury.

During the 1840s, Emory handed out its first diplomas and “Phineas Gage got impaled and his personality changed,” said Duke. Gage was a Vermont railroad worker, whose horrific injury revealed how damage to a specific area of the brain changes behavior.

Fast-forward to the 1860s, when Emory temporarily closed to serve as a Civil War barracks and hospital. Keep moving through the decades as scientists in Europe identified the Broca and Wernicke areas of the brain, data-based psychology began, Freud published his “Interpretation of Dreams” and Pavlov experimented with his dogs.

In 1911, a “professor of mental science” joined the Emory faculty, and in 1919, the college moved from Oxford, Georgia, to Atlanta.

Goodrich C. White, a native Georgian who graduated from Emory in 1908, returned as Emory’s first professor of psychology in 1927. “He ultimately became the dean of psychology and later the president of the university,” Duke said. “He transformed this place.”

Under White’s leadership, the college grew into a university. Emory launched graduate degree programs (psychology’s began in 1957) and acquired what is now called the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
Goodrich C. White

Meanwhile, clinical psychology came of age in the aftermath of World War II. Long before the term post-traumatic stress disorder was coined, the Veteran’s Administration recognized it needed help offering mental health care to returning soldiers and began investing in university’s that offered applied, clinical programs.

During the 1960s, Irwin Jay Knopf was named Emory’s chair of psychology, charged with establishing a department of the first rank. The newly formed department established the basis of three programs that are today known as Clinical Psychology, Neuroscience and Animal Behavior and Cognition and Development.

“The modern era began,” Duke said.

Stephen Nowicki, Emeritus and Candler Professor of Psychology, joined the clinical program in 1969. “The history of the clinical program is also my history. I lived it,” Nowicki said in his presentation. “I have met and worked with all of the people who have ever been on the faculty then or are on it now. We have much to be proud of in the clinical psychology program. We have built a tradition of excellence that rivals any program in the country.”

Over the years, the faculty has published more than 1,000 studies and dozens of books. More than 300 of their students have completed their clinical PhDs and have gone on to impact all aspects of clinical psychology, spread over 40 states and five foreign countries.

Polaroid snaps from 1975 show long-time friends and colleagues Duke and Nowicki, left, and faculty and students in front of the old psychology building.

But it wasn’t all work, Nowicki recalled. Early in the department’s formation many members of the psychology faculty were not much older than their students. “I think we had more fun, or at least we did different things for fun than faculty and students do now,” he said.

Among his most vivid memories was the clinical program’s annual gong show. “I remember a faculty member dancing in a tutu, an ugly dog named Pepper who supposedly was dressed as Linda Lovelace form the pornographic movie “Deep Throat,” and my all-time favorite, the Egg Man. He put his egg cartons down, took off his tie, and then proceeded to take one egg at a time and crush it against his body to the cheers of the audience.”

Darryl Neill, Goodrich C. White Professor of Psychology, talked about how he studied “biopsychology” at the University of Chicago, to become what was then known as a “physiological psychologist.”

When Neill joined the budding Neuroscience and Animal Behavior program at Emory in 1971, he recalled that the department had much less emphasis on biology and animal research. The NAB program has since grown to comprise about 30 percent of the department’s research, Neill said.

Last spring, the department opened the Facility for Education and Research in Neuroscience, housing a Siemens Trio 3-Telsa functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Known as FERN, the facility is geared for using fMRI to explore the neural mechanisms of thoughts and behaviors, while also training students and faculty in the technology.

“We’ve made it,” Neill said of the burgeoning field of neuroscience. “We’re so successful, that the backlash is under way.”

He noted that Emory psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld is among the neuro-critics. Lilienfeld recently co-authored “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.” The book acknowledges the promise of brain imaging technology, while cautioning that it should be used in conjunction with other experimental techniques and face-to-face evaluations of people.

“It’s a thoughtful read, I recommend it,” Neill said.

Robyn Fivush, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology, joined the department in 1984. She talked about how the early years of what is now called the Cognition and Development program were greatly influenced by two faculty: Boyd McCandless and Dick Neisser.

McCandless had written “Children, Behavior and Development,” which Fivush described as “the seminal textbook that defined the field of developmental psychology.” He also founded the journal Developmental Psychology.

At Emory, he strived “to establish a program that approached educational and social issues in a truly scientific way,” Fivush said. “This was while Jay Knopf was establishing an accredited clinical program.”

In 1983, Dick Neisser joined the department. “Dick wrote the book that gave our field its name, ‘Cognitive Psychology,’ in 1966,” Fivush said. “Dick’s vision allowed us to create an amazing intellectual community of faculty from multiple departments, especially philosophy and English, and graduate students, to come together over important issues in cognition, most centrally memory and self.”

Another pivotal figure was Mike Tomasello, who started his career at Emory in 1980 before eventually leaving to become the director of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. “Mike was one of the first developmental psychologists to scientifically study relations between human and non-human primate development in controlled studies,” Fivush said. “He also was instrumental in creating more interaction between our programs in Cognition and Development and Neuroscience and Animal Behavior, something that we continue today.”

The names of many Emory psychology faculty are synonymous with cutting-edge specialties that they helped pioneer, Fivush said, as she flashed a few dozen examples across the screen.

The state-of-the-art Psychology and Interdisciplinary Studies building (PAIS) was completed in 2009.

“I knew that our department was rich in research, but I didn’t realize how rich,” said Cory Inman, one of several graduate students of psychology who gave presentations.

Among the highlights of his varied Emory experience is assisting with patients undergoing deep-brain stimulation for severe depression. “I’ve worked with 11 patients so far and it’s incredible,” Inman said. “I get to literally witness miracles. It’s influencing what I want to do with my future.”

Inman’s talk focused on networks, both neural and social ones. “Psychology and science in general are becoming more collaborative,” he said. “Innovations stem from connections. New niches bubble up and we gain new knowledge.”

So why has Emory forged such strong connections? “I think it’s about caring for one another more than you do your research,” Inman said. “My Emory network has shaped me in countless ways. When I come back for the 70th anniversary (of the psychology department), I hope to see continued commitment to working with and helping others succeed.”

Visit the department's web site to listen to podcasts with more details about the history of Emory psychology. 

Psychology expansion boosts Emory's power for behavioral research
fMRI facility signals new era for neuroscience

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