Jared Branch, director of the Cognitive Science Lab at Avila University, adjusts an Ocular headset on a student for a virtual reality study. (Photo from Avila University)

Does your mind wander? Avila researcher investigates its function

Jared Branch would like to gather responses from a greater variety of adults, and would welcome participation from Telegraph readers

By Jill Draper

When the mind wanders, where does it go? To the future, to the past or to pure imagination? That’s how Jared Branch often explains his research as director of the Cognitive Science Lab at Avila University. 

What is cognitive science? “Typically I say it’s psychology and—” he says. That “and” can be neuroscience, philosophy, computer science or education. “It’s kind of learning all those different approaches to studying the mind.”

If this seems like a wide open subject, it is. But Branch is currently focusing on two specific applications. One is the use of an Ocular virtual reality headset to help students with fear of public speaking. With an inhouse grant from the university, he plans to record a live audience and ask people to practice giving talks by wearing the headset. “It’s basically Toastmasters” for those who are too busy, too shy or otherwise reluctant to join such an organization, he says. 

He thinks a virtual reality public speaking class might even become a required life skills course in the future, just like swim classes were often required by schools in the past. 

The second application that Branch and several graduate students are researching is an area called counterfactual thoughts and how they relate to depression, fear, social media, music and athletic improvement.

These kinds of thoughts are described as “if only.” In other words, if only I had done things differently in the past or said things differently, my life would be better right now.

Everybody has these thoughts—they’re the essence of songs and literature about roads not taken and love not spoken. But some people have more “if only” thoughts than others. Does that make them feel depressed, or perhaps counterintuitively, empowered to make better choices in the future?

Jared Branch, assistant professor of cognitive science at Avila University, teaches a popular class called “Minds.” (Photo from Avila University)

The study of such thoughts is a relatively young field, and there are different theories, says Branch, who has zeroed in on a situation he believes needs immediate attention—climate change. Here’s what he wants to know: If individuals think back about how they could have taken more sustainable actions in the past (if only I had eaten more vegetarian meals or if only I had driven less or recycled more), will they be more likely to take such actions in the future?

He hopes so. “I see it as a possible way of changing behavior,” he says. Branch plans to start surveying students about climate change and “if only” thoughts in January, but realizes that 18- to 22-year-olds who have never owned a house, business or maybe even a car are not the most ideal population to study. He’d like to gather responses from a greater variety of adults, and would welcome participation from Telegraph readers (see bottom for information).

On the other hand, if having too many counterfactual thoughts is a problem that leaves people too depressed to change, how can such thoughts be decreased? The first step is becoming aware of them, and that’s the focus of a future project when Branch will study individuals as they meditate, periodically checking on where their minds have wandered, and if it’s into “if only” territory. He’d also like to explore the relationship between “if only” thoughts and creativity or imagination.

“All my research is looking at memory in the hippocampus and the frontal lobe of the brain,” he says, noting this area lights up in functional MRI scans both when a person is remembering something and imagining something new.

Memory, which is sometimes described as providing the building blocks for things to be imagined, can be emotionally intense but wildly inaccurate, Branch points out. So is memory just one type of imagination—maybe even the same thing? 

These kinds of heady thoughts will be explored in Branch’s winter semester class, ‘Minds,” that he co-teaches with a philosophy professor. The class explores various metaphors for the mind (computer, brain, magpie nest, etc.) plus artificial intelligence and its ethical implications.

“It’s my favorite class I teach,” says Branch, who says students sometimes stop him on campus to talk about it. “I do think that we are in an interesting time, to say the least.”

If you’re willing to participate in Branch’s climate change survey, contact him at jared.branch@avila.edu or 816-501-2447.

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