Dr. Harlan Fichtenholtz’ presented a lecture about his upcoming project for the spring semester. He started off the lecture by laying down some groundwork facts explaining spatial learning, the effects of trauma exposure and various categories of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as well as criteria for diagnosis. When discussing what makes a traumatic event, Fichtenholtz divided it into three distinct categories with provided examples. He chose a three-tier layout in explaining this, starting with simple daily hassles such as misplacing one’s wedding ring or keys, or missing a deadline. The second tier exemplified major life events such as a breakup, dropping out of school, or losing a relative. Fichtenholtz made it very clear which events fit into the top tier of this traumatic pyramid by categorizing serious traumatic events as sexual assault (in any form), experiencing a death, or repeated exposure to aversive details of traumatic incidents.
Fichtenholtz proceeded to include multiple details about PTSD, including statistics about the frequency of the disorder as well as the various criteria used for diagnosis. For example, some facts he presented, with various double bar graphs, histograms and line graphs showed that 60% of men and 50% of women experience trauma of some kind while only 7% and 5% of men and women develop PTSD. According to the DSM-5, the criteria for PTSD diagnosis can be split into four different categories of behavior, which Harlan elaborated on over the course of four or five informative slides. Re-experiencing requires at least one of the criteria in the DSM-5 to be met, negative alterations require at least two, avoidance requires at least one to be met and arousal/reactivity requires two criteria to be met. Each of these categories has their own sub-criteria that has a limited amount of behavior necessary to be met. For re-experiencing, some of the criteria include recurrent psychological and physiological distress, some of the negative alterations include detachment, exaggerated belief, lack of positive thought and guilt. For the latter two categories, some patterns of avoidance include avoiding thoughts and feelings about trauma or any relation to it, and arousal/reactivity includes hypervigilance, sleep disturbance and irritable behavior.
Fichtenholtz’s experiment tends to focus more on testing these latter two categories because they are the most easily measurable, and Fichtenholtz has access to the two necessary pieces of equipment that can accurately measure important aspects of each kind of behavior. These pieces of equipment required for Fichtenholtz’s research are an EEG Cap as well as eye tracking software. Fichtenholtz said while he is not presently in possession of the eye tracking software, he is working on acquiring it and will have it by the time the experiment is ready to be conducted. Dr. Fichtenholtz and his students have compiled four categories of photos that can also be broken into four categories: Neutral, positive, negative and images that focus on reaction-producing in those with trauma or stress related disorders. The purpose of tracking eye movement through the software and brain activity with the EEG cap (connected to one’s temple via 34 neural-activity-monitoring electrodes) is to measure the effects of implicit emotional learning on an attentional basis. They plan to do so through an event-related potential (ERP) study which monitors how subjects engage with their environment, and predicts how they will react in future sets of the testing process.
The EEG cap and Eye Tracking software will measure how subjects respond to each stimulus. With this information, Harlan and his students can use PTSD symptom assessment strategies, life event checklist’s, DSM-5 checklists and the Maslach Burnout Inventory to measure their results, and the scientific community at Keene is excited to see how the results turn out. While these probably seem like extensive ways of measuring subjective aspects of what most consider a disability, psychologists and psychological researchers join hands under these ‘sacred texts’, creating concrete guidelines that promote the removal of ambiguity about others’ suffering.
Either way, this psychological supporter digresses … However, my own interest in the topic of neuropsychology and clinical psychology has introduced me to an insider position with the humble Harlan Fichtenholtz and his intuitive world of projects, and new information. I’ve had very intellectually stimulating conversations with Harlan about some of his projects. I’ve been introduced to new perspectives about collecting data and methodologies from attending various meetings in his room with a handful of his juniors. Three days after attending his lecture and writing about his plan, I decided to take my opportunity during one of the formal meetings to ask him some more in-depth questions than I had during the lecture. I had two main points for the first part of the interview. I wanted to understand more about the functionality of the EEG, and how his students would be involved in conducting the experiment. This would include how the cap reads brain activity, and the extensiveness of the students’ ability to place it on the subjects appropriately. Harlan explained to me that his students were fully responsible for placing the EEG cap and analyzing the data from each subject. After the interview, we were looking at mock models of the data that would be produced after each trial for the benefit of one of the juniors, Grace, who would have the responsibility of analyzing this data. She explained to me that the data came out in the form of a three-dimensional matrix manifested over several pages to simulate all three dimensions of data. Each point would be compared to the rest of the data points in the set. These would be showed in a thousand or so columns and 34 rows, which display each electrode reading wherever they may be connected to the brain.
Harlan then explained to me that this matrix of numbers was correspondent with the EEG and how “it is the summation of neural activity going on across the entire brain at any instance in time. What we record at the different locations is the differences at each of these spots.”
Harlan explained that his team’s current focus was centered around constructing effective methodologies and collecting data. They’re starting to collect data for the fall semester, and should be ready for experimentation at the start of spring. After gaining ethical approval from the Institutional Review Board at Keene, the project was approved for two years of funding. With this, the project would be split into two, possibly three, separate studies. The first two would focus solely on random subjects not chosen for any reason, while the third study would focus on subjects with diagnosed PTSD or any sort of mental illness derived from what we earlier classified as traumatic experiences. Harlan further elaborated on the overarching purpose of these experiments in some concluding statements regarding attention, and how people learn about significance of objects in a space. Personally, I’m extremely excited to participate in the study as a subject, and as someone who has experienced their own trauma and suffers with a consequential mental illness as a result, I support and advocate for anyone who is willing to participate.
Jack Cimino can be contacted at