Research Roundup

Abuse victim

Helping the overlooked victims of abuse

In the United States, approximately 80 percent of incarcerated women are behind bars due to drug charges, and 57 percent of those women were abused as children or adults.

Jessica Peltan, a clinical psychology student at Idaho State University, interviewed 40 such women to learn more about their treatment histories and better understand how psychologists can tailor treatments to their specific needs. Rather than asking yes or no questions, Peltan used a semi-structured interview that asked questions such as, "What type of professional treatment have you sought for any substance abuse problems?" and "What types of support meetings have you attended?"

"We just wanted to gauge whether or not they've sought help and how much help they have received, since past research has suggested that these women receive minimal treatment," she says.

Surprisingly, 97 percent of the women had received some kind of services, says Peltan. In fact, 75 percent had sought professional treatment from a counselor trained to treat substance abuse problems.

Interestingly, the women who did not seek out treatment were the ones who might benefit from it the most: Those who had suffered from the most abuse and currently suffered from the most trauma symptoms. These trauma victims may be turning to alcohol and other drugs to deal with these experiences, she says, a coping strategy that eventually lands them in jail.

Peltan hopes this research will influence the development of substance abuse treatments for those who have suffered sexual abuse and childhood trauma.

Strengthening mentor-mentee relationships

Research shows that programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America can help at-risk youth succeed in school and life. But these programs work well only when the mentee and mentor form a strong bond, says Sara Levenson, a doctoral student in school-community psychology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

"There's still a gap in the research on what helps strengthen the relationship between the people involved in these programs," says Levenson.

To strengthen mentoring relationships, Levenson designed a five-week program to teach mentees about gratitude, using craft projects and a gratitude curriculum. The kids, ages 8 to 13, were members of various mentoring programs. As part of the program, students learned how to recognize opportunities for feeling gratitude in their mentor relationships. For example, students drew cartoons that reflected their mentors' lessons and thoughtful actions and filled out acrostic poems that described the ways they benefit from their mentors' kindness. Each week the students gave the projects to their mentors as gifts.

"The results were great, at least at first," says Levenson. After observing the pairs during the program, she found that mentee gratitude increased as the kids gained greater appreciation for their mentors. With time, however, the results began to taper. Levenson believes this may be because of the short duration of the intervention and the young age of the participants. She hopes that a longer intervention could help the relationships remain strong.

Parents play a key role in Asian-American student success

Immigrants' children who go to college have more than the usual stressors. In addition to adapting to their new social and academic environments, these students also face the challenges of family intergenerational cultural conflict, says Minji Yang, a counseling psychology student at the University of Maryland. Often, she says, immigrant parents hold different values than their children, and research shows that resulting arguments can harm student well-being, especially in Asian-American families.

"A person can have a really hard time if they feel like their parents don't understand them and aren't in agreement with their values," Yang says.

To better understand the relationship between family intergenerational cultural conflict and well-being, Yang surveyed 78 Asian-American women at Mount Holyoke College, a women's college in South Hadley, Mass. Yang measured levels of conflict and support students perceived to have with their parents by asking participants how much they endorse phrases such as, "I do well in school, but my mother's expectations always exceed my performance" and "My mother clearly conveys her love to me." She tested participants' well-being using self-reporting surveys.

Yang found that students' mental health had less to do with conflict levels and more to do with parental social support. For example, students who felt a lot of pressure to perform, but also felt their parents would help them succeed, tended to report high levels of well-being.

Her next study will further investigate how high levels of stress, social support and optimism can work together to create a feeling of well-being in Asian-American students.

Music only the mind hears

Imagine a pianist playing middle C. You hear a single note, but that apparently pure tone actually includes several other notes, called harmonics, that can be as much as an octave higher.

Past research has shown that if you remove the fundamental frequency of a note and play only the harmonics, listeners still identify the original tone. But these studies have always played the harmonics in stereo, says K. Jake Patten, a sensation and perception doctoral student at Arizona State University.

To get a better idea of how the brain processes sound, Patten played different combinations of harmonics in 50 participants' left and right ears.

When he played the second and fourth harmonics in the left ear and the third and fifth harmonics in the right ear, almost 100 percent of the participants heard two distinct tones, he says. However, that dropped to 60 percent when he mixed up even and odd harmonics, such as the second and third in one ear, and fourth and fifth in the other — combinations that don't usually occur in nature.

To test his study further, Patten played the same even and odd harmonics while showing participants images of one or two trumpet players. When listeners saw the two trumpeters, they were 20 percent more likely to report hearing two tones. This shows that the brain draws on both visual and audio cues when making sense of sounds, says Patten.

"The brain is extremely complicated," says Patten. "This shows that there's even more sorting and processing going on than we thought before."

This line of research may help explain how, in a crowded restaurant or bar, it's possible sort out the sound of a band, tune out dozens of irrelevant conversations and focus on that one attractive woman's voice, he says.