Graduate Student Spotlight: Brian Stone
Expected Graduation: May 2013
Area of Study: Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience
Stone’s research includes working with chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys and human children in order to compare cognition and to better understand where our cognitive abilities come from- including those necessary for using tools and coordinating them with our body in space.
"We have investigated the cognitive prerequisites of tool use by observing chimps, monkeys and human children inserting objects of varying complexity into matching-shaped grooves in the ground, which is like a more complex form of the wild tool use you may have seen chimps doing while ‘termite fishing,” Stone explains.
"Likewise, while chimps, capuchin monkeys and children can all learn to stack blocks, we have tested the limits and developmental trajectory of this object-combination ability using unusually-shaped blocks. These skills, simple as they are, form the foundation for the more complex forms of tool use that we adult humans perform with little thought every day. Our research sheds light on the evolutionary and developmental basis for that tool use.”
Stone’s most recent work, this time with humans, involves tricking the brain using sensory illusions in order to investigate the mechanisms by which information from different senses is combined to create a unified neural representation of our body as we move through and interact with the world.
In one of Stone’s experiments, for example, participants find themselves looking down at a fake rubber hand while their own hand is hidden from view. When Stone uses paintbrushes to lightly stroke both the visible rubber hand and the hidden real hand in synchrony, participants begin to strongly experience the rubber hand as part of their body despite consciously knowing it isn't. This sensory illusion causes the brain to feel a sense of ‘ownership’ for the rubber hand. Stone is studying whether this misidentification also causes the brain to ‘disown’ the hidden real hand during the illusion, for example, by decreasing blood flow to the real hand and causing its temperature to decrease.
In another experiment, Stone uses a sensory illusion called positive afterimages to test whether or not we develop a sense of ownership for oft-used tools.
"If a rubber or prosthetic hand can be incorporated into the brain's representation of the body, what about other external objects? When you hold a hammer in your hand, does it become an extension of your arm? Does a blind person's cane become an extended arm even at the neural level?”
In the future, Stone hopes the information he gains in the study will help improve prosthetic limb research.
"Understanding how the brain processes and combines sensory signals to represent, track and feel ownership for our body is essential for developing prosthetic limbs that can be fully integrated into a person’s bodily sense of self,” he says.
"In the long term, I think we are coming into an age when neuroscience and technological advancement will meet in an ever-increasing integration of technology with our bodies. In order for that integration to be successful and seamless, we need to learn how our own brains process sensory information to construct a sense of bodily self. Today it is pacemakers, cochlear implants and artificial retinas; in the future, we may don extra limbs to accomplish challenging manual tasks. I think our idea of what a normal human body is like will eventually expand to include the tools that come to overlap with our biological bodies.”
Stone credits the University and his advisor for providing the tools necessary to expand upon his research.
"I like that UGA offers several great resources for professional development which have helped shape me into a better scholar and academic. For example, the Future Faculty Program has not only honed my teaching but made me a more marketable candidate for jobs after I graduate.”
"In addition, the Psychology department has given me opportunities to teach my own classes, and even to develop a special topics course from the ground up- PSYC 3100 Mind, Body and Action- where I was able to share my research and interests directly with the students at UGA and later bring some of them to the lab with us to gain experience. I believe that widely disseminating our research and making our passion contagious is a fundamental role of the scientist in modern society. I find teaching science to be one of the most rewarding activities in my life. As a researcher, payoff comes slowly, on the timeline of grants and long publication cycles, whereas in a classroom payoff comes every day in fostering curiosity and inquisitiveness in students being newly turned on to the wonder and beauty of science.”
No matter what the future of technology looks like, Brian Stone knows what he wants to see in his own future.
"Five to ten years from now, I will no doubt be working at a university where I can balance my two passions of research and teaching," he says. "Hopefully I’ll be continuing collaborations across other departments and institutions, and will also have more opportunities like what I’ve had here at UGA to teach classes I love and share my research directly with students."