Psychological research is being carried out at MRU to crack the mysteries of the mental condition. The Centre for Psychological Innovation, which officially opened April 5, 2017, is providing a multi-use platform for professors and students to delve their way into the brain’s deepest chasms.

Spring/Summer 2017 issue

Words by Valerie Bereny
Photo by Chao Zhang


Intriguing investigations currently underway at the Psych Lab include looking at how virtual reality (VR) can reduce anxiety, what the potential effects of antidepressants and other medications being flushed into our water supply may be and how to predict sociopathy and psychopathy by measuring how people read faces.

“The amount of ideas, energy and enthusiasm from students and faculty members make the Psych Lab an amazing place to be,” says Ian Wellspring, a fourth-year honours psychology student. “We essentially live here some days.”

Wellspring was a research assistant to Tony Chaston — PhD and assistant chair in the Department of Psychology — for two years. Now he’s running his own research project under Chaston’s supervision, studying personality traits such as empathy and callousness using high-tech, $15,000 eye-tracking software.

“I wouldn’t be able to do my research without this lab and this equipment,” says Wellspring, who plans to pursue a career in forensic or clinical psychology.

Opportunities to undertake the level of research happening at the centre are rare at the undergraduate level at other post-secondary institutions, Chaston says, adding that his department is training the next generation of professionals. Psych grads find themselves working in myriad different fields, but their common interest in helping people leads most into areas such as human resources, government assistance and social services such as non-profit organizations.

“Our students know how to collect data from people and report it effectively,” says Chaston, which means everything from creating questionnaires to evaluating what people think of a certain subject to inferring states of mind based on behaviour.

“The brain is like a circuit board,” says Chaston.

“But we can’t completely measure the output, per se.”


One of Mount Royal’s largest and most successful programs, the Department of Psychology is comprised of 19 full-time tenured professors, 14 part-time faculty, 60 to 70 research assistants, 10 honours students (set to double next year) and more than 600 psychology majors, says department chair Evelyn Field, PhD. It also offers between 4,500 and 6,000 hours of hands-on experiential learning in its introductory psychology classes to non-major students.

“The department is expanding and we needed a dedicated facility to get research done,” Field says. “And there’s a broad range of interests among everyone in the department.”

In order to address the variety of requirements, long before construction began on the new centre the department teamed up with about 20 MRU interior design students who did a month-long needs assessment as part of their program.

The findings went to the architects and the 437 square-metre centre, located on the second floor of the Faculty of Arts building, was built in two phases over two years for $1.4 million. That cost included much of the equipment, Field says.

The cutting-edge space features many advanced accoutrements, including a VR lab, one-way glass observation rooms (including one specially designed for viewing child and family interactions), video and audio editing and eye-tracker suites and a biological psychology “wet” lab, which is currently home to two tanks of local freshwater snails.

As adaptable as our psyches, the centre was designed to be multi-functional. A meeting room with an adjoining kitchenette can switch to a site for focus groups, and a computer lab can just as easily be an online survey centre. Faculty share research spaces with honours students and research assistants, which Chaston says is more efficient than permanently divvying up and dividing the quarters. It’s where experienced scholars and burgeoning intellectuals’ minds meld to become a synergistic research and innovation machine.

Illustration of an eye with a tech looking head as the pupil and iris

Component parts

How well you interpret other people’s facial expressions might depend on your degree of empathetic response.

That’s the theory behind Ian Wellspring’s thesis for the psychology honours program. He’s using one of two eye-tracker computers at the Centre for Psychological Innovation to see exactly where study participants’ gazes land on pictures of expressive faces.

Some areas of the face — the eyes, mouth, nose and cheeks — provide more information than others, Wellspring says. For example, the eyes convey anger, while sadness is found in the eyes and mouth.

“If people are higher in empathy, they can read expressions better. They’re more actively looking for those clues,” says Wellspring. “Those lower in empathy tend to look almost anywhere else on the face.”

It’s thought that people with an “abnormal” gaze — psychopaths or the truly callous — can’t be bothered to look for facial clues. Wellspring will involve 60 to 80 participants in his study, all introductory psych students.

Illustration of a nature scene on the front face of VR goggles

The power of another place

Chaston’s own research is using VR to investigate how alternate realities can help people deal with anxiety-inducing situations such as extended hospital stays and the rigours of academia. In the VR lab, an Oculus Rift headset provides a doorway to other universes, experiences provided by Avatar Media, an Edmonton company that produces 3-D and VR media content. Chaston’s project uses Avatar’s 360-degree footage of various environments: a mountain lake in Jasper, an aquarium in San Diego, a Japanese meditation garden and sunny Zuma Beach in California.

“Natural environments really lower anxiety levels,” he explains. “We have people come into the lab and we test their anxiety level using a standard psychology test. Then we drop them into the VR experience and then test their anxiety right after.” So far, the results have consistently shown a reduction in nervousness, worry and concern, regardless of how present or distracted the subject was.

VR works by sending video to a headset with two internal lenses, one for each eye, which tricks the brain into seeing one hyper-real 3-D image. The illusion in front of the viewer shifts as he or she looks up, down and around, as the lenses constantly and imperceptibly focus and reshape the view for each eye.

Essentially, viewers watch 360-degree stereoscopic videos that are recorded by a collection of cameras or a special camera with multiple lenses shooting in every direction at the same time. The footage is then edited to make an uninterrupted movie of sorts.

With the goal of using VR to help people in hospital, Jaro Malanowski, founder and CEO of Avatar Media, began collaborating with Chaston last summer. The idea occurred to the producer, director and writer when his mother was in intensive care and longed to escape her sterile surroundings.

“She was scared and helpless. I wanted to help her out,” says Malanowski, who’s been working with VR for more than two years. “She told me it would help to somehow be on a beach, and a light came on.”

At this early stage of the project, one of Chaston’s goals is to learn how to reliably measure the result of a VR experience. He hopes one of the outcomes is a valid, standardized test for gaming companies and academics.

Honours psychology student Josh Stewart is doing his thesis research with Chaston on the Avatar Media Collaboration project, conducting testing and helping to develop the methodologies, questionnaires and techniques. He says although it wasn’t his original intention to be a psychology student (he was leaning towards engineering), it was what he was most drawn to studying.

“I realized that doing something I enjoyed was hugely important to me,” Stewart says.

“So, my decision to take psychology is a combination of that enjoyment, as well as a huge interest in a field without strict rules and a ‘perfect’ or ‘correct’ answer. It has allowed me to basically mix science with creativity and free thinking.”

Illustration of a person's head wearing VR goggles resting on a beach.

Expanding and augmenting the virtual world … for good

Malanowski says his ultimate goal is to develop a network of VR creators around the world, all designing experiences for people in hospitals or nursing homes, those in pain or those suffering from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or agoraphobia.

“Much like a curated playlist, you’d create a selection of custom VR experiences for people to use as media therapy,” says Malanowski, who himself has felt the effects of seasonal affective disorder. When it gets dark and cold in the depths of an Edmonton winter, “I use the headset for 15 minutes and go to a beach.”

None of this is science fiction anymore. A Swedish pharmacy chain recently launched a free VR app called Happy Place that it says can help with pain relief by placing users in a virtual lakeside campground. VR exposure therapy is also emerging as a way to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers.

Malanowski says Avatar is continually working to improve the overall experience. He’d like to take that Zuma Beach footage from California and create an augmented reality (AR) layer on top of the VR footage.

Virtual and augmented reality both aim to completely immerse the user; however, VR puts the viewer into a simulated 3-D setting that has been expressly recorded for that purpose. One detractor is that unless it’s a game environment, it can be difficult to move around. Augmented reality is a live view of the real world in real time, one you can fully explore that is amplified with objects and the ability to capture experiences and share them with others. At some point, sooner rather than later, the two will be meshed to create a whole new version of existence.

“Yes, it’s cool to look around the beach, and adults enjoy it, but a 10-year-old stuck in hospital won’t be as engaged,” Malanowski says.

“The one thing kids in the hospital want is to interact on social media. We want to give them an opportunity to take photos in VR spaces, create a photo album and then share their ‘holiday.’”

Snails and SSRIs

In the biological psychology “wet” lab, honours student Misha Kopciuk is exposing developing freshwater snail embryos to diluted amounts of fluoxetine, an antidepressant better known by its trade name, Prozac.

The research project is to see how Prozac, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), impacts the snails’ growth and development.

The advantage of the freshwater snails, commonly found in ponds across North America, is that they’re invertebrates (no backbone) that lay a lot of transparent eggs in a blob called a “clutch,” and take only 12 days to hatch, says Karen Atkinson-Leadbeater, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychology and Kopciuk’s supervisor.

“Early evidence shows there might be a delay in development through to hatching,” she adds. “And because we can also look at the beat of these transparent little hearts, pilot data shows a slowed heartbeat.”

This student-driven research is important for two reasons, says Atkinson-Leadbeater. There’s some evidence that SSRIs might affect cardiovascular system development in human embryos. And there is the emerging issue of pharmaceutical contaminants in wastewater downstream of major urban centres, which happens when people take medications that are not fully absorbed and then excreted by their bodies.

Illustration of three people wearing VR goggles having a meeting inside Rome's colosseum

New realms ahead

As costs come down, VR technology is going mainstream, fast. Released last spring, the Oculus Rift headset — a crowd-funded project bought by Mark Zuckerberg, who sees VR as the future of Facebook — is well under $1,000. HTC, Sony, Google and Microsoft are piling on with their versions.

Interestingly, current research at the centre is also looking into the use of media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, and the negative emotional outcomes of an online social presence.

“In the next five to 10 years, VR and AR are going to be huge,” Field says. “You can already get $20 goggles that you connect to your smartphone. It’s not the same immersive experience you get with the high-end goggles we have here at the centre, but that will change.”

The researchers at the Centre for Psychological Innovation say there’s a brave new virtual world coming soon, one in which we will meet and play wherever we choose. That could be a brainstorming session at, say, the Roman Colosseum, a meet-up with friends at an Irish pub, or a family reunion in Iceland. Chaston and Field are working together to help people successfully navigate the wide array of “wired” experiences that will soon be available to all.

They’re also intrigued to see how humans will interface with the technology and interact with one another. Field, who studies gender differences, wants to investigate how men and women behave in VR and AR spaces. If the often misogynistic and violent world of gaming is any indication, new approaches to protecting users in virtual and augmented experiences might be needed. A social VR site called AltSpaceVR is currently experimenting with allowing users to “freeze” or delete unpleasant or unwanted people from their virtual spaces, Chaston says.

“As VR becomes more mainstream, we’ll need to be answering questions such as, ‘What’s acceptable? What kind of laws should be put in place?’” he ponders.

“We need evidence-based research to help make decisions about these kinds of things.”

Selfies and other social media research

Honours student Jessica Joseph looked into the correlation between Facebook and depression for her thesis. Joseph’s final results were that the more time a person spends passively browsing on Facebook, the lower their sense of well-being. This is because of increased negative social comparison with others on the platform.

Nicola Ford, another honours student, used eye-tracking to investigate where viewers look when they see Instagram page profiles and how they judge the people in those profiles. Ford generated six profile pictures for a fake person: photos of pets, food, poems and selfies. The takeaway? Viewers who looked longer at the selfies judged the person to be a narcissist.

Supervising the work of several honours students’ research projects, psychology professor Malinda Desjarlais, PhD, has some interesting work of her own underway. She is examining the relationship between social media use and quality of friendships. Her theory is that increased and more intimate online sharing can actually improve face-to-face interaction.

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