September 20, 2006

Two thumbs up for new cognitive science professor Parrill

Whose research focuses on gestures and language in communication


Without saying a word, getting two thumbs up is a sure sign that something has gone right. Thumbs down—just the opposite.

How people communicate with their hands and position their bodies while talking—gesturing—are a research interest for Fey Parrill.

She is the newest member of the one-year old department of cognitive science in the College of Arts and Sciences and joins Merlin Donald, chair; Mark Turner; and Yanna Popova, also a new professor, among the faculty members launching this popular new major.

Parrill is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago where she earned doctorate degrees in linguistics and psychology. She did her undergraduate degree work at the University of California at Berkeley in linguistics, where the focus was on using language to understand the human mind. Chicago's psychology program attracted the native from Santa Fe, New Mexico, because of its gesture center.

"Some people think it is a bizarre thing to say, but hand motions are a part of language and not separated from it," explains Parrill, who punctuates her comments with some up and down hand movements and sideswipes to stress her point.

Parrill is also interested in sign languages.

"People do the some same sorts of things in gestures, along with their speech that signers do in signed languages," she said. "You can see some of the same uses of hands and bodies even across very different languages such as Mexican and American Sign Languages, which are as different from each other as Spanish and English are. And you can see them in Spanish and English too!"

Some hand gestures that accompany spoken or silent messages have a positive meaning in the American culture like the "okay" sign but are obscene in other ones.

Saying certain phrases, such as "she was like, oh my God!" can bring on a character change in the way the body is positioned, according to Parrill. Like she says is a word that signals someone is going quote someone. "Then when you do, your body takes on another character's role," she explains.

A word like "this" is basically meaningless unless accompanied with a pointed finger that can instantly convey its reference to an object or space.

In addition to continuing her research on gestures, in her first semester at Case, Parrill will teach cognitive sciences' introductory course, which already has 55 students enrolled. She also will teach "From Self to Others"—a First Seminar for SAGES that will examine interactions in conversations, human to computers and people to cultural objects like paintings and sculptures and live stage performances. Her SAGES class will visit Cleveland's Museum of Contemporary Art as part of their off-campus experience to learn how curators use space in setting up art exhibits.

Also new to the Arts and Science faculty are:  Marc Abramiuk and Mary Irwin anthropology; Virginia Brilliant and Kristen Swenson, art history and art; Idit Zehavi, astronomy;   Dmitri Kourennyi, biology; Gregory Tochtrop, chemistry; John Dayton and Gil Renberg, classics; Laura Baudot, Rachel Davis, Nárcisz Fejes, Raymond Watkins and Sarah Gridley, English; Michael Rossetti, mathematics; Peter Thomas, mathematics, biology and cognitive science; Carlos Lafuente-Rodriguez, Yuko Kojima, Lorenzo Sánchez-Élez Rodríguez, Susanne Vees-Gulani, modern languages and literatures; Grace Fong, Nathan Heath and Theodore Smoker, music; Karen Beckwith, Paul Schoeder, political science; Gunhild Hagestad, sociology; and Patricia Williamson, statistics. SAGES Fellows are Amy Friedman, Jen Feather and Kristen Mahoney.

For more information: Susan Griffith 216-368-1004.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, September 20, 2006 09:54 AM | News Topics: HeadlinesMain, Provost Initiatives, Research

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