Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.
Today, the spotlight is on Raymond Mar, associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Health.
Mar has focused his research interests on imagining the self in fictional situations and the influence of fictional others.
Q. Please describe your field of current research
A. Our lab examines how imagined experiences might impact real-world cognition, emotion, and behavior. So, for example, how imagining the fictional world portrayed in a novel might change how we think and feel, possibly making us more empathetic.
What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?
A. I was an ardent reader growing up and combined this with my interest in psychology as an undergraduate.
Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?
A. A lot of the things that we do in our leisure time, such as watch movies and read books, may actually have an influence on us beyond what we recognize. Seeing as how prevalent these behaviors are, it’s important that we understand their impact on us.
Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?
A. Although many have linked reading to verbal learning outcomes like vocabulary acquisition, in our lab we are starting to look beyond these things to questions like “Can reading help us to empathize with others?”.
Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?
A. In some ways, it broadens the scope of what the field had been studying. In the past, research on video games was limited to negative outcomes like aggression and research on reading dealt mostly with language-learning. Hopefully the work in our lab is helping to expand the field somewhat and encourage others to look in new directions.
Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.)
A. My initial finding in this area of a correlation between the reading of fiction and a person’s ability to infer the mental states of other people was pretty surprising. Many people I spoke to prior to conducting this study thought we’d find just the opposite.
Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?
A. All approaches to research have limitations. With correlational research, for example, it is impossible to make causal inferences. I’ve tried to adopt a diversity of approaches to answering these questions by employing methods from neuroscience, developmental psychology, and personality psychology. But, if we’re to be totally honest with ourselves, psychological researchers need to acknowledge that the scientific method has limitations in the kinds of questions it can answer about humans and human behavior. There are many interesting questions out there that psychological science will only be able to offer us partial and limited answers about.
Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?
A. Working with my graduate students and undergraduate volunteers has really opened my mind to new branches of research. They are always bringing exciting new ideas to the table.
Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?
A. Since we do some work on reading, we are often in touch with literary theorists or philosophers who are interested in the same topic. In addition, I try to collaborate with neuroscientists who share similar interests, to draw on their methodological expertise.
Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?
A. Absolutely, I’m very interested in how our work applies to other disciplines and also how the tools from other fields can be applied to the questions we’re interested in.
Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?
A. I am teaching introduction to research methods at the undergraduate level and a graduate course in research methods for personality psychology. As is probably obvious, I think that understanding and teaching methods and statistics are some of the most important responsibilities that we have as scientists. My own experience with research certainly informs these classes.
Tell us a bit about yourself:
Q. How long have you been a researcher?
A. I guess it depends how you define “researcher”. I like to think that I’ve always been curious about how the world works and how the mind works, ever since I was a child. By way of formal training, I received my PhD in 2007 and came to work at York the same year.
Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?
A. The Italo Calvino book If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler really brought home to me the power of fiction to engage us in richly imagined fictional worlds.
Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?
A. I recently finished watching a British series called The Detectorists that was quite good. Mild and amusing, the way only a British comedy can be.
Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?
A. The more you think about a project and its design at the early stages, the less you’ll regret when you come to analyzing and writing up the data. Don’t rush headlong into data collection.
Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?
A. Maybe René Redzipi, because the food would probably be pretty good.
Q. What do you do for fun?
A. Try to teach myself the statistical software package R.