Holy Cross Psychology Professor Helps Lead a $1.4 Million Grant

October 31st, 2013 by 
Richard Schmidt

Richard Schmidt, professor of psychology at the College of the Holy Cross, is one of two principal investigators on a project titled “Modeling the Behavioral Dynamics of Social Action and Coordination,” which was recently awarded a $1.4 million grant by the National Institutes of Health.

Schmidt and colleagues will be examining bodily movement in interactive social actions – including conversation and competitive sport tasks – to be able to understand the dynamical processes underlying them. The mathematical models developed in this five-year project are anticipated to have a transformative impact on numerous fields, including the study of human movement science, the breakdown of social coordination in autism and schizophrenia, and human-robot interactions.

The grant involves faculty researchers at other universities, including Michael Richardson (principal investigator) and Rachel Kallen from the University of Cincinnati, Elliot Saltzman from Boston University, and Steve Harrison from the University of Nebraska. Also, Patricia Kramer, professor of psychology at Holy Cross, and Bob Caron from Assumption College are participating as consultants.

For 12 years, Schmidt and Richardson have been collaborating on understanding the dynamics of interpersonal synchronization. The pair has earned a number of National Science Foundation grants, which contributed to building the foundation for the current more ambitious grant.

The study will develop dynamical models of four distinct social interaction tasks that require physical coordination: rhythmic targeting tasks, social object-moving tasks, conversation tasks, and competitive sports tasks. At Holy Cross, Schmidt and his two student research assistants, Kelly Clarke ’16 and Alison Franco ’15, both psychology majors, will be in charge of investigating the competitive sports tasks and conversation tasks.

“For the competitive sports tasks,” explains Schmidt, “We are studying a martial arts (Aikido) exercises in which an attacker’s overhead strike is disarmed by a defender. We are interested in mathematically modeling the synchronous nature of the defender’s movements and how the advantage of the attacker is taken through anticipating then leading their strike.”

Schmidt says for the conversation tasks, he is interested in modeling the coupling of body rhythms when people are speaking to one another. To investigate this, he will have subjects perform structured conversation tasks like telling jokes to one another or trying to reach a consensus on “one thing they would like to see changed on campus”.

Schmidt’s student researchers will be conducting experiments where they record people’s bodily movements. Then, the three will determine how particular dynamical properties of coordination change under different task, information and physical conditions. From this data, the faculty research team will develop dynamical models of the steady state behavioral modes observed as well as transitions to and from those modes.

Kelly Clarke ’16, who hopes to major in psychology and religious studies, is one of the Schmidt’s student researchers. Clarke, who is currently enrolled in his “Cognition and Memory” class, says “I have always wanted to help autistic and schizophrenic patients. If our research goes well, we could create a robot that would be therapeutic to those patients.”

Schmidt also has a personal curiosity about his grant research as well as a longtime practitioner of the martial art of Aikido. “I am most looking forward to understanding more about how a defender takes the advantage of an attacker in our Aikido task experiment,” he says.  “I have always wanted to understand this skill, which is often characterized spiritually in the martial arts, in scientific or mathematical terms. Not that this will in anyway enhance my Aikido skill! But it will satisfy my curiosity.”

For additional information, please contact Cristal Steuer at 508-793-2419.

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