It was the middle of summer, and Eric Ingram ’21 decided to trade his bathing suit and sandals for brain scanning technology. He was on a mission to collect data for an ongoing study that explores human learning under conditions of uncertainty.
“We are looking at how learning differs between social and nonsocial contexts,” says Ingram, a psychology student who has been working with Oriel FeldmanHall, an award-winning social neuroscientist and assistant professor affiliated with Brown University's Robert J. and Nancy D. Carney Institute for Brain Science.
Using an fMRI scanner — functional magnetic resonance imaging that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow — Ingram is looking at where learning occurs in the brain. He is tracking the decisions of study volunteers in a social context (for example, when they choose to give money to a partner) and in a nonsocial context (like when they decide to use a mechanical slot machine). The goal, he says, is to determine whether participants adapt to uncertainty faster in a game involving a human or a machine.
“What makes our project unique is the functional aspect of it,” Ingram says. “We are looking for targeted brain regions that may be linked to differences in learning success.”
Ingram and FeldmanHall are interested in knowing if higher levels of anxiety produce particular results within social and nonsocial situations. That's why they also measure anxiety levels in all study participants, which could potentially reveal insights into anxiety disorders.
“Social learning is something all people do on a daily basis without even thinking about it,” Ingram says. “We may be able to examine a particular area of the brain or brain function that is inhibited by General Anxiety Disorder.”
An unparalleled undergraduate experience
Ingram is one of 52 students who received summer Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards (UTRAs) on brain-related projects — approximately 25 percent of all UTRAs in the sciences this year. The awards provide financial support for students collaborating with faculty on research and teaching projects.