UC Merced Connect: Student studying subconscious synchronization

May 30, 2012 

Graduate student Alexandra Paxton finds opinionated students, puts them in a room together and tells them to argue about hot-button issues.

Then she records what happens.

Paxton, who is earning her doctoral degree in cognitive science at UC Merced, studies interpersonal synchrony -- the phenomenon of how people in a conversation subconsciously synchronize their movements, such as nodding or gesturing.

Specifically, she is seeking to understand what happens to that synchrony when people are at odds. The goal is to better understand how people communicate and to eventually use this knowledge to improve treatment methods for troubled youth.

"I really think that to resolve conflict we have to understand conflict," she said.

The lab uses a high- definition video camera and two microphones to record the arguments. A computer analyzes the footage and shows the people's basic movements and whether they're moving in sync.

They discovered that people continue to be synchronous in arguments if they like the person they're talking with. However, if they don't like their conversation partner, their synchrony is greatly reduced.

Paxton came to UC Merced last year from the University of Memphis after her adviser, professor Rick Dale, accepted a job here.

She initially was interested in going into clinical psychology to treat troubled youth. Before coming to UC Merced, she spent a year working at a youth rehabilitation facility.

When she met Dale, Paxton became interested in his work on language.

She wants to connect her research with the work psychologists do in the field. Her research tools are simple and could be used to analyze whether people are interacting well or if someone is shutting down during an argument.

"You can get a lot of insight through synchrony," she said. "It can teach us how to see into other's minds."

Political science major serves community

Fidel Cervantes has a passion for government service. Just two years out of high school, Cervantes serves on Delhi Unified School District's school board.

He was 19 when the district appointed him to fill a vacancy, and he plans to run for a seat and serve a five-year term.

The UC Merced political science major is using his community as a learning laboratory for his field of study. While he is not planning a career in politics, he isn't ruling one out.

"I have a long future ahead of me," said Cervantes, 20. "I leave (a political career) open as an option. We'll see."

Cervantes, who is balancing multiple commitments, just completed his sophomore year.

In February, he earned a spot at the John F. Kennedy School of Government's Public Policy and Leadership Conference at Harvard University. He also serves on Merced County's Delhi Municipal Advisory Council.

Both his parents emigrated from Mexico. Cervantes has a brother who attends middle school in Delhi.

Many local residents are immigrants who speak English as a second language, Cervantes said, and many families cope with limited incomes. That often encourages people to get involved, he said.

"This community does experience poverty," Cervantes said. "But, if anything, I think that prompts a lot of people to get involved.

"What I like about local government is the independent spirit. People campaign on their own merits and aren't bound by partisan ideology."

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff.

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