Thursday, February 09, 2006

Winter Wonderland, Geology and Psychology

I awoke this morning to a winter wonderland. The rising sun flooded snow-covered branches, raising a spirit of joy somewhere deep in my soul.

We live on the "Highland Rim," which is an elevated plateau north of Nashville. The plateau is about 500 feet above the rest of Middle Tennessee, so we sometimes get snow while only rain falls just a couple of miles south.

The Highland Rim is actually the edge of a geological bowl in which Nashville sits, which is called the "Nashville Dome." You might wonder why a bowl would be called a dome. The reason is that this area was uplifted by tectonic forces during the Late Devonian period (354 to 370 million years ago) and then again during the Carboniferous Period (286 to 360 million years ago). A glance at any major road cut in Middle Tennessee will reveal layers of limestone, which is brittle in nature. These uplifts caused this brittle limestone to crack, which allowed erosion to remove about 500 feet of material, causing the surface of the dome to recede below the surrounding area. The Cumberland River and its tributary carried this material eastward toward the Mississippi. Thus the Highland Rim remained elevated above the lower areas such as Nashville. The rocks on which Nashville sits date from the artificial (443 to 490 million years ago), whereas those of the Highland Rim are younger.

I've always been fascinated by geology, which was one of many potential majors I might have chosen in college (I graduated in 1968). I could also have majored in English, Sociology, Anthropology and Philosophy, but I chose Psychology instead. I didn't choose my major until the 11th hour, at the end of my Sophomore year after taking just one Psych course, Abnormal Psychology. This introductory course was intensely fascinating to me, but it turned out that William & Mary's Psych program was what they call "Experimental" instead of "Clinical," which is the other main type of undergraduate psychology.

So after one very interesting introductory course, there were no more like it. Instead, I had to learn how to manually calculate R-squared, T-tests for significance, etc (and I'm terrible at math). I gathered statistics on how quickly rats could be taught to press bars and how quickly this behavior could be extinguished, along with studying other simple behaviors. Very boring, nothing new, nothing of interest to me, since my primary reason for choosing Psych as a major was to learn about human behavior, not to replicate experiments that had been performed decades ago. I did enjoy playing with my rat, however.

Another major aspect of the program was learning how to publish articles in professional journals. It seemed to me like the purpose of W&M's undergraduate Psych program was to prepare a student for a Masters and later a Doctorate degree, the only purpose for which was to become a Professor in order to train new Psych teachers, who would train other Psych teachers, etc.

It also seemed to me like Psychology involved in a desperate attempt to prove itself a "real" science like Biology and Physics; hence the emphasis on replicating experiments to establish scientific proofs. I later learned that other colleges focused on Clinical Psychology, which studies human behavior instead of focusing on experimental results and publishing. I might have actually pursued that field if I had chosen a different college. But you can't live life in the rear view mirror.

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