Imagination Critical to Two Recent Research Council Grants

Story by: Jeff Sossamon
Photo of Pazia Mannella: Angela Bruno

Sept. 24, 2019

Photo of electrodes being placed on child
ECG electrodes are placed on the child's collarbone and at the base of each ribcage. SCL electrodes are placed on the child's non-dominant hand. Researchers use non-intimidating language such as "stickers" and "strings" to introduce the electrodes and wires to the children.

Preschoolers often are associated with imaginative stories, but reports from two recent Mizzou internal grants show that imagination doesn’t necessarily have an expiration date.

Rachel Thibodeau, an assistant professor of human development and family science and Pazia Mannella, an assistant teaching professor in Mizzou’s Fibers Program, School of Visual Studies, were awarded Mizzou Research Council grants to augment and enhance their research programs. Each, in their own way, are exploring imagination.

Thibodeau’s research in the College of Human Environmental Sciences focuses on imagination and how it affects emotional regulation in three- to five-year-olds. Emotional regulation is foundational for social, academic, and occupational success for kids, both in early childhood and as they continue to develop. Additionally, empirical evidence demonstrates that children who are more imaginative often are better equipped to regulate their emotions, but the mechanism responsible for driving this relationship is not well understood.

Using Mizzou Research Council funding, Thibodeau’s goals were to better understand why there is a relationship between imagination and emotional regulation skills in childhood. On the surface, imagination appears to involve emotionally salient events. For example, children may show fear when pretending they are being chased by a dragon or excitement as they imagine there is a fairy in the room. Thibodeau was interested in testing whether or not imagination is – in fact – emotionally arousing by examining children’s physiological responses to imagination.

Approximately 65 children participated in a standard reactivity protocol to measure sympathetic responses to imagination. Thibodeau’s team met with the preschoolers one-on-one and encouraged them to create stories focused on highly imaginative themes such as castles, dragons, space travel, and magical lands. Using pads attached to the preschoolers’ palms, they measured perspiration as the children engaged in imaginative story telling.

“Our results demonstrate that physiological arousal increases when children engage in imagination compared to other non-imaginative control tasks,” Thibodeau said. “These findings help us better understand why emotion regulation and imagination are linked in the literature; our study is the first to suggest, via increased physiological reactivity in the sympathetic nervous system, that imagination is emotionally arousing. It is therefore possible that engaging in imagination gives children an opportunity not only to experience different emotions, but also to practice regulating these emotions in a safe context during their play. We think that overtime, as children engage imagination, they may naturally strengthen their emotion regulation skills. We plan to test this idea more fully in our future studies.”

Photo of Pazia Mannella showcasing one of the pieces that she'll display at her upcoming exhibition at Columbia College
Pazia Mannella showcases one of the pieces that she’ll display at her upcoming exhibition at Columbia College.

C. Pazia Mannella, an Assistant Professor of Fibers and the Fibers Program head of the MU School of Visual Studies, uses imagination and skill to create artwork that is recognized nationally. Her award-winning exhibits, some of which are inspired by Philadelphia architectural elements, help to motivate her undergraduate students learning the craft as well as seasoned graduate students refining and cultivating their skills.

The equipment and looms in her studio were less inspiring.

The hand looms in Mannella’s studio had seen a lot of wear and tear and many were decades old. Using funding from the Research Council, she trained students to make repairs and funded a studio technician, Caleb McMurry, who brought several looms back to life. Mannella also purchased several floor looms that enhance the learning experience for artists in her class.

“Internal funding from the Research Council helped me to fully develop a weaving studio that will be used by students for years to come, as well as to foster my own creative research in the Fibers area,” Mannella said. “Completed repairs has allowed a loom weaving focused Fibers course where each student is assigned their own loom for the duration of the semester.”

Mannella says that weaving on floor looms is a fundamental process within her own creative research that has contributed to her recent and upcoming exhibits, Earthly Delights at the Sidney Larson Gallery, Columbia College, Columbia, MO, Teach/Taught: Fiber Art Educators, at Meramec Community College, St. Louis, MO, AMoA Biennial-600 Textile/Fiber, at Amarillo Museum of Art, Amarillo, TX and a solo exhibition, at University of Central Missouri Gallery of Art & Design, Warrensburg, MO.

More Information About Research Council Grants

Research Council Grants are awarded to support research, scholarship, and creative activities conducted by tenured, tenure‐track, and ranked non‐tenure track Mizzou faculty members, with an earned doctorate (or the discipline’s highest earned terminal degree; e.g., MFA), at the level of Assistant Professor and above.

Requests for Research Council funding that are clearly aligned with institutional priorities for research, scholarship, and creative activities are highly considered. These priorities include activities that lead to book contracts with academic publishers, juried theater and music performances and art exhibits, peer-reviewed research articles in AAU-endorsed journals, and the generation of robust pilot data to bolster proposals for external funding.

Research Council Grants provide funds for project expenses totaling as much as $10,000. There are two levels of funding: Small grants are for requests up to $1,000 and large grants are for requests greater than $1,000 and to the maximum of $10,000.

The next deadline for submission is Oct. 7, 2019, for consideration on Dec. 2, 2019. More information can be found here.