With Computational Tools, Psychology Research Seeks to Better Understand Memory and Spatial Navigation

Social Sciences3 MIN READ

Derek Huffman studies the brain to discern how we use our memory to navigate the world

Assistant Professor of Psychology Derek Huffman
By Kardelen Koldas ’15Photography by Gabe Souza
November 29, 2021

Assistant Professor Derek Huffman joined Colby’s Psychology Department in 2020. Holding a Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior from the University of California, Irvine, Huffman’s research investigates how people learn and remember information, especially about their environment, through using computational techniques. He fielded questions from Staff Writer Kardelen Koldas ’15 about his research and teaching.

What does your research explore? What are you hoping to better understand?

The field of cognitive neuroscience attempts to understand the mind (i.e., cognition) by combining the study of behavior with the study of the brain (i.e., neuroscience). Our memories make us who we are as individuals; therefore, I’m fascinated by the cognitive neuroscience of memory and spatial navigation. I want to know how we can use our memory to navigate large-scale spatial environments like Colby’s campus, how we can remember celebrating our children’s birthdays, and why patients with memory disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, lose these abilities.

How do you carry out this research at Colby?

At Colby, I have started the Huffman Spatial Cognition Lab. Our work focuses on developing immersive behavioral tasks that will better approximate our everyday experiences. For example, we’re using immersive virtual reality, and we create smartphone applications for real-world memory tasks. In the future, we will use neurophysiology to study how the brain represents these immersive experiences. We will also apply techniques like machine learning and computational modeling to try to understand the human brain and behavior. Additionally, we will study both younger and older adults to understand how our ability to learn, remember, and navigate changes as we get older, which we hope will provide a framework for understanding Alzheimer’s disease.

How are you integrating your research into your teaching? What specialized courses have you offered at Colby?

The Department of Psychology has a great tradition of providing opportunities for students to conduct research in both the classroom and the lab. For example, in my Cognitive Neuroscience seminar and Collaborative Research in Cognitive Neuroscience courses, we discuss papers and work in teams to conduct novel research projects. This is a very exciting opportunity to get to work with students in a way that is really unlike anything that I experienced in my own education, even including graduate school. My field is very computational, so I get really excited to teach students about programming in several courses and how it can be applied to answer questions about the human mind and brain.

What impact are you hoping to have at Colby?

I’m excited to be offering new courses in cognitive neuroscience, which add to the psychology: neuroscience major. In our courses, we also have several students from the biology: neuroscience major, and I hope that these classes will inspire students from all majors to get excited about the brain, cognition, and behavior. And I’d like to further develop the neuroscience programs here at Colby, because neuroscience is such an important and fascinating topic. I also hope that I can help students gain valuable research skills, both from my classes and from my research.

What attracted you most about Colby?

There were several aspects. First, I wanted to be in a place that really valued integrating teaching and research. Second, I wanted to work with passionate students who took an active role in their learning experience. When I came to Colby for my interview, students asked me amazing, high-level questions after my talk. I was thrilled to think about working with Colby students. Third, I wanted to be in a department that values the intersection between psychology, neuroscience, and computer science. Our department has majors in this intersection, including psychology: neuroscience and computational psychology. Fourth, I felt a sense of excitement at Colby. I like that the College is constantly pushing the boundaries and trying to redefine the future of teaching and research in the liberal arts setting.