When I first met Jennifer Stevens, PhD, about a year ago, she was giving a presentation on neuroscience and some of her latest research. I was impressed with the fact that every thing out of her mouth was so… understandable!  Usually when I talk with neuroscientists, I walk away feeling like a deer in headlights.  When Stevens talks, she uses simple language to explain some of the most complex concepts of our time. She makes it all so simple, so practical.  She describes the structure of the human brain using by using words like “real estate” and “utilization” and she’s studying how our behavior is impacted by space.  Which is makes her super cool in my book.

LS:  If you are at a cocktail party (with non-scientists) what do you tell people you do for a living?

Jennifer Stevens:  Usually I’ll say I’m at William and Mary and then they might ask if I’m faculty or what I do, at which point I say I’m in psychology and neuroscience, that I study mind and brain and how they process perception and action.

LS:  You work at W&M but in the psychology department, yet you are a neuroscientist.  Why is that?

JS:  Anyone looking at neural or cellular activity, mediating the processes of mind and behavior is a neuroscientist. For me, it comes from my work in the area called “Cognitive Neuroscience,” which really took hold in the 1990s. Cog Neuro is essentially all of the experimental paradigms cognitive psychologists typically run in the lab but are completed while participants are in brain scanners.  That way we get to see the online neural response during different tasks in addition to the behavioral output.

LS:  When did you become interested studying brain activity as it relates to physical space?

JS:  I’ve been working on the representation of space and action since a graduate student. Back then, my experimental work examined the difference between visual and motor imagery, or how the mind and brain re-present the environment and our actions within it. Over the past few years, I’ve begun looking more closely at how surrounding space actually influences the ability to think.

LS:   Describe your lab at W&M.  What are you studying now and what do you think you will find?

JS:  There are always several lines of study going on, but the work I think you’ll find most interesting is the research using what we call the “shrinking room.” This is a special apparatus that changes size ranging between 2×2 and 7×7 feet. We place individuals inside and examine how they perform on different types of tasks. One of the most surprising results has been that the smallest space isn’t always where performance is worst. In fact, it’s best for things like mental math calculations. We have a few ideas why that might be. One is that a person might prefer the blank wall ahead so they can use it as a mental workspace.  Right now, we’re working on using the apparatus to find the average “optimal space.” Our participants get to move the walls around until they feel they have the perfect surrounding space. That is something we haven’t been able to experimentally define before and, regardless of outcome, the study is really compelling to me!

LS:   For those who are interested in reading more about you and your work, where can they go?

JS:  Here’s my website: http://wmpeople.wm.edu/site/page/jastev/jenniferastevensphd

LS:  What are other books, magazines, journals, blogs we should read if we want to learn more about neuroscience in general?

JS:  For my work, research in both psychology and neuroscience journals is most compelling and relevant. The APA Journal Psychological Science has some of the best research articles defining our current theoretical and experimental state. There’s the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience and Nature Neuroscience. But I also love the New York Times, and how well they present studies from these areas. Their Science section is outstanding, and is available online!

LS:  What scientist do you most admire (past or current) and why?

JS:  Oliver Sacks. Number one. His work was pouring out in the 80s/90s and when I was in graduate school we’d all read him and discuss him. For me, he personified the atypical individual in a way that hadn’t been done before. His presentation of cases humanized unique individuals so that they were no longer considered lesser and that played a huge role in the comprehension by the general public of the patient, especially the neurological patient, and a complete human.

LS:  Five years from now, what will we all be talking about when it comes to neuroscience?

JS:  Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to rewire itself is still a huge field where lots of advances are being made. There’s also the area of neurorobotics, the interplay between brain, behavior, and technology, that’s gaining a lot of traction. Anything that helps the neural system develop, recover, or adapt– for me, that’s where all the amazing stuff happens!

Art pieces such as Ernesto Neto’s, The Dangerous Logic of Wooing, 2002 (on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Hirshorn Museum, and at the top of this post) invite the observer to visit a world with unique surroundings. It’s fascinating how walking beneath this piece can impact your cognitive processes. For me, if surrounding space changes our feelings, thoughts, or ideas then it must follow that thoughts must take up space. My task now: measuring the space of thought.