New lab shows current trend in humanities research

For a layman, laboratory research is normally associated with natural science. However, one such research lab has opened at the Faculty of Arts. It is called the Hume Lab and it allows experts to use experimental methods in the humanities.

Surveys, observations, interviews. These are the most popular research methods for humanities scholars. While they are useful tools for finding out a number of things, they have their limitations. Scholars are therefore looking for other ways to obtain valuable information.

Eva Kundtová Klocová, who is responsible for Hume Lab, describes its greatest advantage in the following way: 'Giving someone a written description of a stressful situation and asking them to describe their reaction to it is not the same as when you can let them experience the situation and use devices to record their reaction.'

In this way, experts can circumvent the commonly known fact that our own minds often play tricks on us. From a young age, we tend to consider our own memories to be a sound source of information about past events and we only assess their reliability based on how clear and vivid the memories are. 'However, recent research of false memories shows how much we can be deceived by our own minds. It is not about lying to others – it is about how much we unknowingly lie to ourselves.'

Scholars from the fields of religious studies, psychology, pedagogy as well as linguistics are all planning research projects that will use the lab equipment. However, other people from various settings within as well as outside Masaryk University – such as hospitals that collaborate with MU – can come with other ideas. From the very beginning, it has been part of the plan that scholars from diverse fields should be able to work in the lab.

All this is made possible by equipment that has so far been largely missing at the university. For example, the lab has an eye-tracking system that monitors the movement of eyes across a computer screen, which can be used for translation research or for the study of human perception of written texts.

'The system records places in the text that readers find difficult as well as aspects that help them during the reading process', says Roman Švaříček from the Department of Educational Sciences. However, his main interest lies elsewhere: his work involves observation of processes that take place in classrooms.

He and his colleagues recently – before the new lab equipment was available – conducted a pilot study focused on stress that students experience during exams. It turned out that students were stressed the most when they were waiting to be examined, perhaps talking to other students about their results, and not during the exam itself. Today, the researchers would be able to obtain even more specific data, as the new lab also offers tools that allow closer examination of the activity of the human body and of people's experience.

Other components of the lab are almost equivalent to medical equipment. There is an EEG device that records electric signals emitted by the brain as well as a functional near-infrared spectroscopy device that can show certain brain processes, similar to functional magnetic resonance imaging. Moreover, the device available in the lab is portable and can be used in field work. And what can it be used for? 'We can use it to record motor functions and brain activity related to emotional experience', says Eva Kundtová Klocová.

She cannot yet reveal details about the design of planned experiments, as they are part of several grant applications that are waiting for approval. However, anyone can come up with other ideas and research projects.

You can find the lab at the MU Faculty of Arts on Arna Nováka. One part of the lab is located in the renovated A building and the other in the new adjacent B pavilion. The lab was created as a part of the Center for the Advancement of Research in the Liberal Arts (CARLA).

Masaryk university