Tuam professor pushing the boundaries of neuroscience

A Galway woman is leading a team of scientists from Trinity College Dublin to help push the boundaries of neuroscience forward and increase understanding of how human beings experience the world.

Professor Fiona Newell from Tuam hopes to one day help address the so called ‘hard problem’ of how consciousness works, through the study of how people make sense of the information that they take in through their senses.

“What my team and I are really interested in is how we make sense of the world around us,” she said.

“How do we make sense of objects, places and faces? How do they come together in the brain to give us meaningful information about the world

Prof Newell is professor of experimental psychology in the School of Psychology and the Institute of Neuroscience in Trinity College Dublin, where she leads a team of scientists who concentrate on testing how the typical human brain interprets the world around it.

Their research is featured in a new national series of Science Apprentice books from UCD that encourage primary school children to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM ).

“We also work with case studies and medical patients so that we can understand what can go wrong with our senses and how we can pinpoint what’s gone wrong in the brain. For example, we often work with patients that have an inability to recognise familiar faces, including those of their friends and family,” she said.

“We want to know what exactly their brain is not capable of doing when they see an image of someone they should recognise.”

Prof Newell's research is featured in a new national series of Science Apprentice books from UCD that encourage primary school children to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM ).

“Did you know you can experience illusions through touch? We did an experiment with children from primary schools in Dublin where we asked them to feel the ‘Muller-Lyer’ illusion, which was hidden from their view so they could not see it,” she said.

In this illusion, two parallel lines of the same length have different arrow heads on them. But even though the lines are the same length, people felt them as longer when the arrow heads were pointing inwards.

“The kids are amazed and fascinated when they learn more about how the world works through their senses.”

The books Superbodies, Up In The Air, Illusion and How It’s Made are produced by University College Dublin and partners and supported by the Science Foundation Ireland Discover Programme and the Environmental Protection Agency. Newell contributed to the Illusion book in the series, which is out this Saturday, November 17.

“These books are also a great way for parents to get their children interested in science and technology as a career, reinforcing the message that there is no limit to what they can become,” said Prof Newell.

The Science Apprentice books are available to order for schools and are free to collect with the Irish Independent in SuperValu stores every Saturday in November.

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