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Psychology Professor Matthew Prull has been fascinated by the mental processes associated with aging and memory for as long as he can remember.

Nikita Adhikari '20This summer, Prull teamed up with psychology senior Nikita Adhikari to test theories about the psychological phenomenon known as the attentional boost effect. 

Adhikari, who will graduate from Whitman College in December 2020, is using this experience to learn how to collect data for her senior thesis on the psychological concepts of familiarity and recognition, as well as gaining valuable experience with the psychological research process. 

“This whole experience is rewarding in and of itself because it is something I have never done before, and I feel like I am learning a lot about doing research,” Adhikari said. “I have even learned a little bit of basic coding, which is something I have never done before. I have found that sometimes, even the simplest things can take days or weeks to perfect, but it's an amazing and relieving feeling when it all starts to come together.”

Studying How Attention Affects Memory

The attentional boost effect refers to the counterintuitive enhancement of memory when attention is divided during the encoding phase in the brain, Prull said. Based on prior research conducted by Prull and others, psychologists have demonstrated that there are costs to having divided attention in terms of retrieval of memories. 

For Prull and Adhikari, the purpose of this summer’s research is to see if, in addition to the known costs, there may exist potential benefits of dividing attention during the retrieval stage of memory. 

Although this is his first time conducting student research within a virtual setting, working with students is by no means a new experience for Prull. He recognizes the importance of getting students into the lab (or in this case, in a Zoom meeting) to conduct their own research and see their own results. Prull knows first-hand the benefits of undergraduate research, and aims to provide students with an opportunity to witness psychology in action. 

Matthew Prull“It’s rewarding for me to be able to provide and show students how the process works from start to finish,” Prull said. “To give them the sense of what it’s like to get your hands dirty in doing the work of research psychology.” 

Prull’s interest in the field sparked after taking a psychology course in high school, when he initially had dreams of becoming a counselor. He soon discovered his interest in the functions of memory and how memory changes as people grow older, in particular how compromises in attention will affect memory. 

Years of research in cognitive psychology has demonstrated the “intuitive view,” as Prull puts it, of the relationship between attention and memory, which says that if your attention is less than full, memory is going to suffer. If attention is divided or you’re distracted, information presented in that moment won’t be remembered as well if you were to have full attention. The focus of the current research draws on the idea that this intuitive view may not hold true in every situation.

From Student to Researcher 

As Adhikari learns to navigate her way through unfamiliar programs and methods of research psychology, she is very appreciative of the new skills she’s gained from working with Prull this summer. While preparing to potentially present her thesis virtually in the fall, it has proven especially helpful to learn how to conduct experiments online.

“This research is a lot of trial and error in terms of working with the program to get the experiment to work and record the data that we need,” Adhikari said. “But Professor Prull is patient and flexible. He is always open to questions and encouraging when we experience any sort of setbacks.”

Adhikari plans to take a year off after graduating from Whitman to conduct research before heading off to graduate school. 

“I hope to gain the skills necessary to create more experiments in the future, while learning how to narrow down on the relevant results and analyze them in a way that would make sense to the public in case I ever want to write research papers of my own,” Adhikari said.