New Psych Prof Studies Mental-Emotional Bond

September 29, 2002

Nick Marinello

Life is more complicated than it looks," says Denise Newman, observing a fact that should be obvious to most undergraduates, but often is not. When she begins teaching in the spring, Newman will drive home this point by drawing on her own research experience about how the mind functions.

Newman, who arrived on campus in September, is the newest addition to the psychology department faculty. Her research interests in developmental psychopathology have led her to study the relationship between the developing mind, cognition and emotions. Of Ojibwa and Metis descent herself, Newman specifically has focused her research on young American Indian children, exploring how emotional and brain development join together to help people adapt to new experiences.

"When children enter pre-school, they are learning how to express how they feel, communicate what they need, and coexist with others with competing demands," she says. "Those skills come together as the brain develops. There are individual differences in how children acquire these skills. Some kids adapt well to school and others have trouble."

Newman notes that the interplay between brain development and the demands of the external environment get more complex as children age. "Initially, at home, they typically have few other people around them. It's mostly their parents who are helping to explain the world around them. The children enter preschool and suddenly there are other kids, teachers and new expectations of them."

Ideally, she says, the brain will develop at a rate that can handle the growing complexities of their lives. But when it doesn't, the children can be overwhelmed by their experiences, and problems can occur. "You can't ignore sadness, rage or frustration and plow through material on teaching numbers and the alphabet," she says. "You have to meet children and people in general as whole, thinking and feeling souls."

Children from minority groups may be particularly prone to this gap between brain development and experiential input. "I think there are more demands from the environment on ethnic minority kids," says Newman. "Their environment is more complicated because of social forces, because of the subtle and not-so-subtle social and economic disparities in the world we live in."

Leaving the University of Virginia, where she spend the last five years, Newman will get her feet wet at Tulane this semester by supervising graduate school practicums for the psychology program. Next semester she will teach Personality Psychology to undergraduates, who as developing young adults experience the ongoing kind of give and take between the internal and external world that children do.

"They, too, need to know as much about what is getting in the way of their understanding and how to ask the right questions as they do about just acquiring more knowledge," says Newman. "We are all both emotional creatures and thinking creatures."

Outside the classroom, Newman will be busy setting up a research operation similar to the Emotion and Personality Development Lab she left at UVA. In fact, she is bringing two ongoing projects with her: "Teen Pathways Study" and "Transition To School Study." She already has high expectations for the influence of her new home on her work. "New Orleans is a brand-new context for me and there are doubtless all kinds of new factors here that influence people's lives."

Nick Marinello may be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000