By Howard Iver Thorsheim, Ph.D., St. Olaf College
Howard Iver Thorsheim is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, USA. In these blogs he offers his first-person insights into effective teaching techniques gleaned from a combination of scholarly research and over 40 years in the classroom.
I find Electrodermal Activity (EDA) to be a great way to demonstrate psychophysiology measurement at the beginning of a course: students easily understand it. It takes little time to set up and record because it only involves two sensors on the finger tip pads. It works every time as a “window” to emotions with clear responses to a variety of stimuli (e.g., visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory).
I show students a picture of a rock climber climbing a cliff, then ask them to jot down some notes of what they might feel when climbing like the woman pictured, and then buzz with a person sitting next to them about what they wrote. I ask for a show of hands of who has mentioned the bag hanging from the climber’s belt. Depending on the amount of time I choose to devote to the activity, I lead the entire class through a number of probing questions; for example:
“Who knows what the bag is for?” (Chalk for fingers.)
“Why does the climber use chalk?” (Reduce slipperiness from sweat.)
“Why do fingers get slippery?” (Emotion.)
“What other people encounter emotion daily?”
I then set the stage for EDA: changes in skin conductivity are due to the amount of sweat in sweat glands of the skin, which are produced by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system responding to emotion.
I explain to the class that I will be the first volunteer, and guarantee that no shock is involved using BIOPAC equipment. I connect electrodes on the volar pads of my index and middle fingers, and take a deep breath, which will generate EDA. Then I tell the class I will think of emotion-producing situations, and ask them if they can see any EDA detected by the equipment. There will be a few good chuckles because in anticipation of doing so, my response will already appear. Two of several easy classroom measurements of EDA include latency (about 1 to 3 seconds between a stimulus and beginning of the electrodermal response), and peak amplitude (the maximum size of the response). My eBook Doing Psychophysiology–Getting Started on the Apple iBooks Store has a graphic narrative and a one-minute video explanations about EDA, as well as other psychophysiology measures you can show your students. The Biopac Student Lab system also includes two lessons in which students can engage in interactive learning activities while measuring EDA; a lesson on the principles of biofeedback and one on the standard physiological measures of a polygraph.
An excellent summary of Electrodermal Activity is provided in the following chapter:
Dawson, M. E., Schell, A. M. & Fillion, D. L. (2007). The electrodermal system. In J. T. Cacioppo, L. G. Tassinary, & G. G. Berntson (Eds.). Handbook of psychophysiology (3rd ed. pp. 159-181). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Learn more about BIOPAC’s education solutions, including complete teaching systems for psychophysiology and the life sciences. BIOPAC also provides a wide range of research systems for recording, displaying, classifying, and analyzing psychophysiological measurements.
BIOPAC Systems, Inc. provides life science researchers and educators with data acquisition and analysis systems that inspire people and enable greater discovery about life. Visit us at www.biopac.com.
Professor Thorsheim is a licensed Psychologist, educator, and author. He has published or presented over 125 papers, journal articles, books, book chapters or monographs, and received a patent in 1985 as a co-inventor for an educational book design with interactive elements. His work has been funded by marquee foundations across the globe. His most recent work is Doing Psychophysiology: Getting Started, available from Knowledge Growers, Inc., available as an iBook download in 51 countries.