Psychology Professor Earns Fulbright Scholar Grant to Research Time Perception in Humans and Animals

David M. Freestone

David M. Freestone, William Paterson University assistant professor of psychology in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, received a Fulbright Scholar award to develop and test a new experimental design to study how animals learn time intervals.

Freestone will be spending four months in Sao Paulo, Brazil at the Universidade Federal do ABC in the summer of 2020 to perform research and develop and teach a graduate-level cognitive science course at the host institution.

The Fulbright Scholars Program is one of the most widely recognized international exchange programs in the world that grants support for graduate study and research in 140 countries.

“We are proud that David Freestone received this prestigious Fulbright award to embark on this important project,” says Kara Rabbitt, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “We look forward to the resulting research and collaborative relationship that will develop with the university in Brazil.”

“The purpose of this Fulbright Scholar project is to spark and then develop a long-term international collaboration in cognitive neuroscience that will exchange students, faculty, and ideas between the Timing Laboratories at Universidade Federal do ABC (UFABC) and William Paterson University,” says Freestone.

Freestone, who teaches courses in sensation and perception, neuroeconomics and cognitive science research, says that animal timing sits at the heart of cognitive science. It is one of the only abilities we have that flows along the entire pathway of the brain from perception to action.

“My lab builds mathematical models of learning and decision-making to try to understand the structure and organization of the brain,” says Freestone. “A typical experiment will ask humans and mice to predict the time at which a reward will be delivered. They learn the time intervals through experience, which allows us to study both learning and decision-making.”

Freestone says that his mathematical models try to capture what is going on inside the head of the animal – either a model of neurons communicating with each other or higher-level cognitive computations. For example, can a mouse flexibly apply an already learned time interval to a new situation? He likens it to a human who learns to bake a cake for 45 minutes and then is able to apply that knowledge to baking cookies. His proposed experiments will discover whether the memory for a previously learned interval can be used flexibly in a new situation.

The reason this is important, he says, is because it bears heavily on the question of where memories are stored and how they are constrained.