Comps Insider: An empirical approach to mental health equity

Isabel Folger ’24 shares her process for developing her psychology comps and her passion for mental health equity.

Cecilia Samadani ’26 10 May 2024 Posted In:
Headshot of Isabel Folger ’24
Isabel Folger ’24Photo:

For Isabel Folger ’24, her interest in the human mind goes beyond the study of literature on the subject. As a cognitive science and psychology double major, she is using her senior integrative exercise — AKA comps — to delve into empirical research study and design. With the goal of a career in academia, Folger said that doing two comps appealed to her because “I really enjoy research and want to get as much experience as possible.”

During Fall Term 2023, Folger ran her psychology comps experiment alongside research partner Yichen Zhang ’24, who is a psychology and philosophy double major and a cognitive science and music double minor. Their comps’ focus is in the field of health psychology, and they specifically studied the effect of nature videos on a person’s stress level, along with physiological arousal and cognitive resources.

Folger and Zhang’s comps adviser is Ken Abrams, professor of psychology. Folger works with Abrams in his health psychology research lab — where some of her interest comes from — and especially enjoys learning about research methods from him.

Because their project is empirical, rather than a study of existing literature, Folger and Zhang had to petition a proposed experimental design to the psychology department in order to be able to do an independent research study. Using student participants, the team showed the individuals a digital nature video and measured their stress levels before and after viewing the video.

Folger explained that they were measuring both affect and cognitive resources. Affect is a term that “psychologists use to refer to mood, feelings, and emotions, and is measured using two scales of positive and negative affect,” and cognitive resources are the “mental effort you have to give to some cognitive task,” Folger said.

“In this case,” Folger added, “we’re doing a directed attention task — your ability to focus on one thing, measured as performance on that task — to measure the cognitive resources available for that person. We also measured physiological arousal — the heart rate with a pulse oximeter.”

To prevent a floor effect, Folger prepared a small task that participants did “comparable to the mild stress a Carleton student would encounter during their day-to-day life, such as a quiz.”

“Whether you’re concerned about a floor or a ceiling effect depends on whether you expect your independent variable to increase or decrease,” Folger explained. “We included a mild stress-inducing task so we’d be able to detect the effects of the nature video. We predicted the video to be restorative for affect and cognitive resources, and if both of those constructs were already high in the beginning, then we wouldn’t have been able to tell whether there was a significant effect.”

Folger attributed some of her interest in her research to there being “a lot of literature on real nature exposure” in health psychology. In comparison, there is very little on the effects of digital nature exposure.

This lack is interesting to Folger, “because in our increasingly urban world, not everyone has access to nature, which has only been true very recently over the course of human history. Our bodies and minds did not evolve to thrive [outside of nature],” she said. “I want to bring experiences to people not fortunate [enough] to experience these beautiful places, [to people such as] prisoners, those in urban environments, hospital patients, and people with disabilities preventing them from regular access to nature.”

“I am passionate about equity and mental health equity, which is why I’m interested in health psychology,” she added. “Although I’m not on the frontline directly impacting mental health [in a career in academia], research directly informs the work and accessibility to mental health resources. Apart from that, I’m interested in research methods in general.”

Folger finalized the results and data analysis from her psychology comps this winter, which she will present in the spring. She also used the winter to conduct the experiment for her cognitive science comps, which focuses on memory processing — something she finds just as fascinating.

“We base all of our opinions, feelings, and perspectives on ourselves, others, and the world on our memories,” she said. “Except for the exact moment you’re in second-to-second, your entire lived experience is memory… [Memories are highly malleable and] change through time as you recall them and make new related ones. We have a perception that if we have a memory, that is correct and that version is correct, [but they] can change over time in a variety of ways. They can be manipulated, can be made to have false memories of circumstances that never happened, and can weaken over time. What we know of the world is not always right.”

“We all have them,” she added, “of people who are not here and parts of [our lives] that are really crucial.”

The study of cognition and memories are important, Folger said, because “if we have a better understanding of how they change and weaken over time, we have more control over the accuracy with which we base our perspectives on the world and our own lives.”