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Dr. Brock Kirwan

Dr. Kirwan is a favorite professor in both the Psychology and Honors Departments. In addition to directing BYU’s new MRI Research Facility, he studies the brain mechanisms that allow people to form and retain memories of events.

Honors involvement: Dr. Kirwan is an Alcuin Fellow, currently team-teaching HONRS 220: “This is Your Brain on Lit: Neuroscience in Literature and Film”, with Emron Esplin. 

What’s been the most significant plot twist in your life?

Getting a job at BYU. My wife and I have three degrees between us from the University of Utah, and we never thought we’d end up living in Provo or working at BYU, let alone loving it.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What is something that has surprised you recently in your research?

We’re working on a project now that challenges conventional wisdom about how the brains of left- and right-handed people activate differently. This is actually the Honors thesis of Loriana Goulding. It’s a very common practice to exclude left-handed people from FMRI studies. The reasoning is that left- and right-handed people have different patterns of lateralization in their brain activity. Since FMRI is so expensive, these studies usually have very few subjects, so researchers are hesitant to add any more variability to their data than they have to. So, no lefties in FMRI studies. The problem is that (for the memory literature at least) there’s very little data to support this assumption. So, Loriana (who is left-handed herself) recruited and scanned 30 lefties and 30 righties while they encoded and later retrieved words and faces. We’re still analyzing the data, but so far, we don’t see even a hint of a difference in the activation patterns between lefties and righties. This is good news for the 10% of the population who are left-handed as it means there’s no reason to exclude them from future FMRI studies (of memory at least—when we did a language task as a control, we did see differences between groups).

What is something most people don’t know about the MRI research lab?

First, that there is a state-of-the-art MRI facility on campus. Second, where to find it. We’re tucked away in the McDonald Building.

Where is your favorite place you have traveled?

Hungary. I served my mission there, and my family and I lived there for a few months in 2018 when I had a Fulbright fellowship at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. We love it there.


Where have you traveled that you least expected to ever visit? 

New Zealand, specifically the Waitomo Caves, one of the only places in the world where glowworms live. They’re really cool.