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Monkey Business

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Assistant professor Justin Couchman, Ph.D., the newest addition to Albright College’s psychology department, studies metacognition, or thinking about thinking. Through his research, he’s discrediting common test-taking advice, revolutionizing what we know about monkeys (and by extension ourselves), and proving that everything is better with a puppy by our side.

By Hilary Bentman

Time to debunk some myths.

One, the advice you got from teachers about sticking with your initial answer on a test question doesn’t actually improve your chance of getting it right.

Two, rhesus monkeys are more self-aware than previously thought. And three, scientific evidence suggests that having a puppy by your side actually improves your mental ability. That last one may not seem like much of a revelation, especially to dog lovers.

So what do these seemingly unrelated topics have in common?

They all deal with metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and each is studied by Justin Couchman, Ph.D., the newest assistant professor in Albright College’s psychology department. Couchman has been breaking ground in these fields and is continuing his work at Albright.

“Metacognition is closely linked to consciousness. It’s the most primitive yet sophisticated mental ability,” he said. That’s pretty deep stuff, but fitting for a man with an undergraduate degree in philosophy.

Couchman, who received his doctorate in cognitive psychology from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, studies how humans monitor their own thoughts, how they make more informed decisions, and how it relates to self-awareness and self-agency, or the ability to understand that they cause things to happen.

To shed light on human metacognition, Couchman studies rhesus monkeys and compares the primates’ abilities to those of adults, children and people with disabilities.

A couple years ago, Couchman became the first researcher to demonstrate that rhesus monkeys possess a sense of self-agency despite failing the mirror self-recognition test, previously the main indicator for self-awareness in animals.

As it turns out, monkeys don’t like mirrors.

This work may help researchers better understand human development and disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, autism and schizophrenia, as people with these conditions often have issues with mirror self-recognition, too.

“Monkeys are a pretty good model for young children and those with autism who don’t have language,” said Couchman.

Looking beyond the mirror, Couchman developed a computer program to test self-agency on monkeys housed at the Language Research Center at Georgia State University. The primates were given a joystick to manipulate a cursor on a screen. Despite other cursors running simultaneously, the monkeys were able to identify which one they controlled. “Rhesus monkeys don’t seem to understand other minds but they do seem to understand their own minds,” said Couchman.

Couchman visits Georgia State a couple times a year but largely develops the computer programs offsite. At Albright, he is working with Josh Ehlinger ’15, a psychology and computer science major, to develop a new, more three-dimensional computer program to eventually test on the monkeys.

Couchman also conducts metacognition research in his own classroom, looking at how college students perceive their answers on exams and how that affects their performance. He is proving the old mantra of ‘go with your first instinct’ when answering test questions doesn’t actually lead to better results.

“There’s a huge bias to stick with the original answer. So many professors give it as advice,” said Couchman.

Instead, he advises students review and revise their work before submitting it. And to prove the benefits, Couchman asks his students, during normal exams, to rate their confidence level as they answer each question. Knowing how confident they are in a given moment helps students when they review their work at the end of the exam. Early indications show this step improves grades.

The third area of Couchman’s metacognition research is human-animal interaction, specifically investigating what affect the presence of trained therapy dogs have on people performing tasks. Using electroencephalography (EEG), a type of brain measure, Couchman has found that cognitive processes, including working memory, improve when a pup is present. He hopes to continue this study at Albright.

Though research is a large part of his work, Couchman enjoys teaching and says Albright is a perfect place to do it. “It’s a great opportunity. It’s small so you can work more closely with students.” Next semester he’ll teach a course on animals in their environment and a seminar class on what else but metacognition.

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