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"Reflections from my stay at Kyoto University Kokoro Research Center, Summer 2013" by Kimberly Bowen (visiting student)

IMG_1684_1.jpg My name is Kimberly Bowen, a graduate student from the University Of Utah Department Of Psychology. At my home institution in Salt Lake City, Utah, I work with Dr. Bert Uchino in the social psychology and health psychology program. Over the last several months, I had the remarkable privilege to spend my summer in Kyoto, Japan to conduct research related to my doctoral studies. I visited Kyoto University and the Kokoro Research Center under the mentorship of Dr. Yukiko Uchida. The three-month Summer Program, sponsored by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the United States National Science Foundation, gives graduate students an opportunity to form new international collaborations, conduct research in Japan, and learn about culture and scientific infrastructure in Japan.
Now, if you ask your typical graduate student in the United States to list the absolute essential ingredients required for successful training and adequate preparation for their postdoctoral career, many of them would give you a similar list: productive publishing, collaborative networks, a coherent program of research, and independence from your graduate mentor’s program of research. However, missing from this list is “to complete an international research exchange.”
While it may sound unconventional and – at first glance – it may not seem essential, I humbly propose that after my experiences as part of the Kokoro Family this summer, participating in such an exchange not only contributes to the other ingredients described above, but it also offers something special, which cannot easily be conveyed in words, that goes above and beyond these conventional items on the list.
Back at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, I am now beginning my fourth year in the doctoral course with Dr. Bert Uchino. My program emphasizes training in social psychology and health psychology. Humans are social animals, and social support is a universal aspect of relationships. I am not only interested in how people’s close relationships and the social support they perceive and receive from these relationships may impact psychological processes, such as stress and well-being, but also how such factors affect physiological processes and physical health. I am especially interested in understanding the pathways and mechanisms by which such a social psychological variable like support is able to influence hard physiological processes, such as cardiovascular reactivity, ambulatory blood pressure, or inflammation, and long-term health outcomes, such as mortality.
Within social psychology, social support generally refers to the degree to which an individual perceives that he or she has access to resources from his or her social network should they become needed, as well as the actual assistance a person receives. One approach to studying such pathways is to categorize social support into its functions – or types – and subsequently examining how these unique types differently affect health. Typically, these functions of social support are conceptualized as being emotional (providing affirmations of self-esteem and worth), informational (providing advice, coping ideas, or shared experience), instrumental (providing financial or other tangible assistance), or belonging (providing opportunities for social inclusion through leisure or recreation) support.
Importantly, much of the research examining functional social support and its impact on physical health has been conducted within a European-American cultural context. For example, in the United States, data suggest that receiving emotional social support is more consistently and more strongly associated with health benefits, such as reduced ambulatory blood pressure, as this type of support is more likely to convey psychological benefits, such as increased self-esteem, increased personal control, and decreased stress, which in turn down regulates physiological stress responses. However, social support can result in either benefits or costs to health, depending on contextual factors. Prior research has demonstrated that these effects are in part determined by the cultural context in which support occurs and depending on whether support bolsters or threatens culturally salient concepts of self and relationships (e.g. self-esteem or social harmony). Furthermore, emerging research suggests that the specific pathways by which social support has benefits and costs for health are different depending on the cultural context. For example, while unsolicited support can be costly in independent cultures, the reverse pattern is found within interdependent cultures, where solicited support is more costly.
Thus, to expand upon what we know thus far both about the cultural differences in the impact of support functions, this summer we conducted a study in both Salt Lake City, Utah and Kyoto, Japan. The study proposed that these costs and benefits of social support may be tied to whether or not social support activates a threat to a culturally-valued self-concept, such as an independent, accomplished self or a connected, socially harmonious self. At Kyoto University, we examined whether belonging social support is a type of social support more strongly associated with well-being benefits within interdependent cultures as opposed to other types of support, which have deleterious effects in interdependent cultures, but not in independent cultures. We also examined whether giving social support to another is associated with similar health benefits in interdependent cultures as in independent cultures.
These aims were examined through a study in which participants reported on social support, self-esteem, social connectedness, and well-being over two weeks using online, daily diary surveys and an in-person baseline visit. Thus, it was hypothesized that receiving belonging social support will be associated with fewer costs than previously researched types of support in an interdependent culture, as it provides opportunities for social inclusion without increasing relational inequity. Second, giving social support is linked to similar benefits as received social support in U.S. samples. However, it is not yet known whether giving social support has health effects in different cultural contexts. Thus, giving social support was hypothesized to be beneficial in both independent an interdependent cultures to the extent that it increases culturally-valued self-concepts. The study followed 38 American and 38 Japanese participants across two weeks of daily diary surveys measuring social support, self-esteem, social connectedness, mental well-being, and physical symptoms.
Currently, we are wrapping up the last few participants’ daily diary collection for the United States sample. After this, the data collection phase of the project will be complete and we will commence with data analysis. Analyses will include multi-level modeling of within- and between-culture differences as well as overall individual variability and time effects across cultures. This summer was also my first time conducting research in a lab that focuses on culture as a primary level of analysis. Thus, I was able to observe and participate in the process of translation, back translation, and human ethics considerations in a multi-lingual and international research study. I eagerly look forward to analyzing the data, as based on these results, I hope to extend this line of research by examining hard physiological dependent outcomes, such as ambulatory blood pressure, and related research questions.
Daily Life
Beyond the laboratory, my daily life experiences in Japan also proved to be an energizing experience for my development as a graduate student. While many family members back in America expressed great interest in Kyoto’s weather because I visited during the rainy season followed by the hot summer season, and frequently asked why I would not also be in Kyoto during the beautiful, celebrated momiji or sakura seasons, I am very happy that I was able to live in Kyoto specifically during the summer months. With Kyoto’s history, beautiful heritage, and lively summer spirit, my educational experience in Japan was not limited to the laboratory. Even in my day-to-day life experience, I owe my deepest gratitude and appreciation to Kokoro Research Center, as the kind and helpful staff assisted me in arranging my housing and a bicycle. From coasting down the path along Kamogawa, to hearing the cicada’s cries pass by from tree after tree, to passing by hotaru’s glow in early summer, Kyoto is truly a city that should be experienced by bicycle.
IMG_2772_1.jpg I wanted to do my best to fully experience the true face of summer in Japan. While the summer is hot, fortunately, the many festivals and sights in Kyoto during this time of year also seemed to take place during the evening hours when it was a little cooler and when the lanterns, fireworks, and illuminations could best shine. I remember braving the heavy, pouring rain to see my first Hanabi Taikai. I was amazed to find that this which had been on and off all day stopped completely just 20 minutes before the Biwako Hanabi Taikai. The rain did not start again for the rest of the night, as if even the rain knew not to interrupt what was truly the most spectacular firework display I have seen in my life.
Kyoto also beautifully blends history and modernity. For example, the colorful light display on Nijojo and the illuminations for Kyo no Tanabata at Horikawa and Kamogawa were nothing short of magical. During Gion Matsuri yoiyama, I was able to try many delicious street foods, including the cool, refreshing kakigouri, and I could experience firsthand how cool yukata are when worn on warm summer evenings.
My thanks again must be paid to Kokoro Research Center, for arranging my housing with Kyoto International Student House, as I met many Japanese and International graduate students. Truly, one benefit of living at the Kyoto International Student House was having peers who could share information about the remarkable things happening in Kyoto every day. For example, one resident – a long time native of Kyoto – organized a group to visit the Firewalking Festival at Tanukidanisan-fudoin. It was a lesser known but no less impressive and unique festival, as we watched the monks prepare the sacred ashes to be walked across.
During my stay, I also traveled northward to Hokkaido University to meet with social psychologist Dr. Masaki Yuki and his Culture, Social Ecology, and Psychology Laboratory. Dr. Yuki was kind enough to allow me to present my research to his laboratory, which consisted of postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduate students. I greatly enjoyed this opportunity, as presenting to researchers outside of your home institution generates great discussion as well as the exploration and challenging of assumptions often taken for granted. Not only did I enjoy exploring Sapporo as a reprieve from the summer heat in Kyoto, but I also enjoyed Sapporo for the delicious, fresh seafood and lamb for which it is known!
My summer stay ended during the end of Obon, so saying good-bye seemed especially powerful as I watched Daimonji’s “Dai” kanji come alive in fire, because this was the same sight I’d seen every morning from my bedroom window. As the souls departed at the end of Obon, using the fire of the mountains as their guide, I felt a little sadness knowing it was also my time to say good-bye and return to my homeland.
It seems fitting that to conclude, I look back on my Orientation at the very beginning of my visit in which the Summer 2013 JSPS fellows were told “year after year, JSPS fellows say that this summer research opportunity changed … transformed … their lives.” It has a nice sound it, doesn’t it? To be entirely honest, maybe as graduate school teaches us to think rationally and critically, I was somewhat skeptical of this grand claim. Could three months really transform lives? Could research in a foreign country be so different from conducting research in your home country? Could I really still change so much as an adult? But, by the end of the program, I was entirely convinced of this grand claim and humbly corrected by my life-changing experience in Kyoto and at Kokoro Research Center. The summer was one of the greatest educational experiences of my life. This is entirely due to the many organizations and individuals who I met this summer and they have my deepest gratitude.
Truly, I am indebted and grateful to Dr. Yukiko Uchida for opening her lab to me and for her academic mentorship. I also thank Dr. Uchida’s collaborating colleagues during Summer 2013, including Dr. Kosuke Takemura, Dr. Satoko Suzuki, and JSPS visiting professors Dr. Takahiko Masuda and Dr. Steven Heine, for their mentorship, helpful discussions and feedback, and support during my stay. The opportunity to exchange research and ideas with professors outside of your direct field of study fosters interdisciplinary thinking and innovative questions, so please accept my thanks for your time this summer. I also could not have completed my research without the great assistance of the graduate students, Shintaro Fukushima-san and Kenshiro Ichimura-san, at Kokoro Research Center, who although busy with their own projects, selflessly helped me conduct this study. My thanks also go to Yuji Ogihara-san, Hitoshi Tominaga-san, and Igor Almeida-san, for their constant assistance this summer.
My special thanks go out to Miki Nakaji-san, Atsuko Tominaga-san, and all the supportive staff at Kokoro Research Center. Moving to a new country for the first time can be a daunting task, but thanks to your kind support, patience, and helpfulness, I was able to settle smoothly into my Kyoto life. It quickly became home, and I know this is due to your support. I would also like to thank the agencies, my host institution, and their incredible staff, including the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Summer Program, the United States National Science Foundation East Asian and Pacific Summer Institute, and Kyoto University Kokoro Research Center. I hope these excellent programs will continue for many future generations of graduate students. Finally, I also thank my advisor in Utah, Dr. Bert Uchino, for allowing me to freely pursue such a life-changing experience.
In conclusion, though my stay has ended, I see this ending as more of a beginning. Since my return, I continue to study Japanese as much as I can each day in between my graduate studies in psychology so that I can someday return to continue my research and experiences in Japan. Again, to everyone, thank you for your warm hospitality and for looking after me during my stay. Truly, you all changed my life and I will not forget these memories.