Timothy R. Brick, PhD
Assistant Professor, Penn State University
Department of Human Development and Family Studies
Other Research Interests
I do not apologize for the casual tone of this page. These are things that I am interested in casually. That I also study them as my job is a result of my job being awesome.
Primarily, I'm interested in communication.
More specifically, I'm interested in the way that people communicate with each other, both verbally and nonverbally. The words we say and the way other folks understand them. The things we don't say, out of social "niceness" or simply because we don't have to. The things that get somehow communicated but nobody even realizes are being communicated (like, when its ok to say "yeah!" while somebody's talking, and when it's rude). These generally fall under the subfield of Pragmatics. Even more than that, though, I'm interested in the things nobody even thinks about (like when people synchronize their movements in conversation, without anybody ever trying to). That's usually classed as the study of nonverbal behaviors, but there are verbal aspects of it, too.
Let's do it live.
If we want to intervene in the processes that make up human experience, there's no better time to do it than exactly when a human is experiencing it. So let's monitor and intervene in conversation during the conversation. When better to adapt an educational tool than while someone is using it to learn. And how will we ever learn about the experience of an emotion unless we ask people about it while they're feeling it?
Also, I care about integration.
Human sensorimotor systems are amazingly complex. We use them for all kinds of crazy things, from deciding whether or not we can sit on something to extracting meaning from shapes on a page to alerting ourselves to incoming texts. And they're flexible in ways people rarely imagine. If there's useful information in something, our brains and sensorimotor systems extract it. And when we have tools, we do it even faster. You stop thinking about fingers hitting keys on the keyboard, and you make words with your brain. You even detect typos that way sometimes. I think there's a good deal of fun to be had hacking the sensorimotor system.
Not too high-level, not too low-level
I like mid-level research. While it's very cool to think about super high-level constructs like how concept X maps to concept Y in people's conceptions, I'm not really interested in studying that. Similarly, while the cellular and subcellular makeups of neurons are pretty cool, I'm not so much into that, either. I'm a fan of the level right below what everybody knows is happening: where things like the perception-action loop and embodied cognition reside. Right around the level where you read about a finding, and then spend the next four days watching yourself and your friends and going, "Holy crap, that's totally true!" (Try it with the example above: People synchronize their poses and movements in conversation. Honest. Watch yourself talking to people, and you'll see it. Better still, next time you talk to someone, look them straight in the eye and start nodding. See if they can resist the urge to nod back.)
We Have the Technology.
There's a disconnect between psychological science and technological development that aught not to be there. Using technology like videoconference, web distribution, and motion-tracking, we can add data-heavy objective (often implicit) measures to modify and add to traditional self-report, response-time, or survey measures. Once we're using data-heavy measures, of course, we need more advanced statistical methods to analyze them--classical ANOVA, for example, just can't get at what we want. Instead, we have to turn to multi-level, hierarchical, and dynamical models to describe the data and test our hypotheses. And sometimes, we need to develop those methods before we can use them. Of course, that's just another part of the fun.
The numbers tell the story, but they don't sell the book
I prefer to focus on research that has a clear implementation, preferably one that's useful. Even if it is ten-years-down-the-road useful. So I try to work from two sides towards the middle: there's science, and there's engineering. Science starts with a question, and works towards an answer. For example, we might ask, "How do humans move their heads during conversation?" The result might be a mathematical model of the dynamics of head movement. Engineering starts with a problem, and works towards a solution. So the problem might be "We want our robot to move its head right in conversation." The result there is a program for a robot that follows the mathematical model and generates head movements. I'm of the opinion that the two are distinct, but that doing one is insanely useful to doing the other. For example, how better to test a model of human head-nodding than to implement it on a robot or avatar, and see if people respond to the robot the way that they respond to a person?
People are awesome.
Psychology and Cognitive Science are where it's at in my book. I'm interested in everything about people and the way they think and interact with themselves, each other, and the technology they use. After a time as a teacher, I'm starting to get interested in how they learn new things, as well. And how culture and tradition get mixed up in it all. Of course, I haven't done much studying in that regard yet. But there's still time.
Welcome to the future. Here's your robot.
C'mon. It's the 21st century. While I'm still waiting for my personal jetpack, two of the best technologies the future has brought us is affordable home and hobbyist robots, and personalized monitors and predictors like wearables. They're both tools that are easy to use and fun to hack. Why wouldn't you want to toy with one? Actually, I'm only just getting back into the robotics game, and only starting out in the wearables world. But if I get some free time [Ha, ha! That's hilarious. Free time. Good luck on that one. --ed.] I'll post some details on my robotics tinkerings.
And I like monsters.
Y'know, folklore, stories, tall tales, and legends. They tell us a whole lot about ourselves. And they're fun. Plus, the fact that even fear can be interpreted positively is one of those things that just makes you go... huh.