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PURE Award winners 2016: Julienne Cancio

Psychology major studies how the mind and body react to concrete and abstract words

Julienne Cancio is examining how word meaning might be represented through bodily experience. Photo by Nikki Reimer, University of Calgary

By Jennifer Robitaille

The University of Calgary’s Eyes High strategic statement reads “students will thrive in programs made rich by research and hands-on experiences.” The integration of teaching and research is a priority in this vision and the Program for Undergraduate Research Experience — also known as PURE — is an important initiative that reflects this commitment.

Each year undergraduates can apply for the prestigious PURE Awards, which provide financial research support to some of the university’s most promising students over the spring and summer months.

The program is designed to give undergraduate students the opportunity to learn how to develop research projects, undertake independent research and contribute to knowledge in their respective fields.

In this Q&A series, we hear from the 2016 PURE Award winners from the Faculty of Arts.

Name: Julienne Cancio

Degree sought: Bachelor of Science in Psychology

What is your research topic?

The topic I’m examining is embodied cognition, which broadly describes the study of how the body and the mind interact. In particular, we are interested in examining how word meaning might be represented through bodily experience. For instance, our representation of the meaning of a word like “apple” might include sensorimotor features like its feel, taste, and smell. However, this becomes more difficult in the case of abstract words (such as “power”) because they have less bodily information associated with them. For instance, you can’t touch or see power. We are trying to build upon current embodied cognition research to better understand how humans understand and represent both concrete and abstract words.

What attracted you to this particular research project?

Embodied cognition is an interesting field because it tries to explain concepts that are typically not grounded (i.e., there is less sensorimotor activation when thinking about abstract words). Moreover, it is a growing field in cognitive psychology that proposes that the way we understand the world is a combination of sensorimotor features that help us interact with our environment. The relationship between word meanings and their sensorimotor features, which may be represented through metaphors, piqued my interest towards this research project.

Why is this research important?

Embodied cognition has found evidence that we represent the meaning of words through their sensorimotor features. However, a challenge in this field is how to explain the representation of words that have fewer sensorimotor features (i.e., more abstract words). A potential avenue to explain the representation of these abstract words is through metaphor. For instance, how do we represent an abstract concept like “time,” which doesn’t have any sensorimotor features? This might be done through the “space is time” metaphor, in which we think about the abstract concept of time in terms of space.

For instance, we might imagine the passage of time as movement across an imaginary timeline going from left to right. In this way, even an abstract concept like time can take on sensorimotor features. This research is important because it would help answer a big challenge for embodied cognition: how can abstract words be represented through sensorimotor features.

What do you hope to achieve with this research?

With this project, I hope to shed light on how we can use metaphors to represent abstract words, which would provide insight on how we process language. I also hope to gain new skills as a researcher, including how to program psychology experiments and analyze the resulting data.

What do you like most about your field of study?

I enjoy being challenged and forced to think “outside of the box” when it comes to research. Psychology is a truly integrative experience because actions we perform everyday is a combination of complex brain activations that ultimately make up the human experience. Plus, it’s motivating to work with individuals who are as passionate about their work just as much as you are.

What advice would you give to other students considering applying for PURE awards next year?

Don’t be afraid to approach professors with an idea. It never hurts to try and there are excellent professors at the University of Calgary who are more than willing to help students to get involved with research. Collaborating with world-class researchers is an opportunity I highly encourage students to take – it has definitely been one of the most enriching experiences of my undergraduate degree, and it teaches you many skills (i.e., networking, time management, professionalism, etc.) that are transferrable to future endeavors.