Home / Topics

Psychology of the human heart helps you understand how to build bonding relationships

Psychology is the science of the human mind and behavior. Associate Professor Saori Nishikawa has been researching mental health problems and interpersonal relationships that occur during puberty and adolescence. She has recently been conducting interdisciplinary research in psychology, molecular biology, and medicine, focusing on the roles of brain activity and genetic dispositions. Here is more from the interview with Prof. Nishikawa.

Biological factors influencing human thought and emotion

Interviewer (◆ hereafter): Please tell us about your research!

Prof. Nishikawa: I have been researching mental health issues and illnesses which occur during puberty and adolescence. I have a longstanding interest in how human relationships influence the mental and psychological states. I have used questionnaires to investigate the impact of parent–child and peer interactions.
However, questionnaire surveys have methodological and other limitations. This led me to focus on innate biological factors in addition to environmental factors such as relationships with parents and peers. I am now interested in measuring and analyzing the effects of genotypes and cognitive capabilities on mental health. 
My eyes were opened to this area when I was a researcher at the Nagasaki University Faculty of Medicine, where they pursue interdisciplinary research on psychology, molecular biology, and medicine. I thought it would be fascinating if I could bring biological and medical approaches to psychological research.

Ten years in Sweden taught me to think and act on my own

◆: How did you come to be interested in psychology?

Prof. Nishikawa: I spent 10 years in Sweden, doing my undergraduate and postgraduate studies.
I wanted to study in a country where their native language is not English. I chose Sweden because I had been exchanging letters with a Swedish pen pal since junior high school.
In my first year of college, I attended a variety of classes conducted in English. One of the courses was on psychology. Sweden is home to advanced psychology studies, as well as studies on welfare policy and environmental science.
Although the human mind is sometimes too complicated to fathom, the idea that we can read people’s minds based on how they talk and write intrigued me. I found that the analyses of how others think and feel were often applicable to me.
The first year of my college studies hooked me on the study of psychology so much that I entered the postgraduate psychology program in Sweden.

◆: How was your college life in Sweden?

Prof. Nishikawa: They require students to learn independently. Passive learners cannot succeed. You must think for yourself and develop your own perspectives when you write essays and reports. I prepared myself well before attending classes. Looking back, I think my supervisors used a great deal of patience and self-control to let me make progress at my own pace. They probably thought things could go much faster and more smoothly if they did by themselves.
Now that I am a part of the teaching staff, I understand that patience is a key asset for instructors and mentors.

A photo of Prof. Nishikawa and her Swedish supervisor at their university library. It is an academic tradition in Sweden to nail the approved dissertations onto the walls of university libraries.
The copy of Prof. Nishikawa’s PhD dissertation has a pink cover.

Research themes that relate to personal support

◆: What are your current research themes and future plans?

Prof. Nishikawa: I am currently engaged in a project on reading facial expressions of emotion. Facial cues play a vital role in communication. However, the ability to read facial expressions differs from one individual to another. Many people with developmental disorders and autistic traits struggle to recognize anger on the face of others although they can readily acknowledge a happy, smiling face.
In this project, we ask the study volunteers to play a specially designed video game on a tablet device, and their abilities to interpret facial expressions are quantified.
Knowledge of the relationship between the ability to read facial expressions and communication will be a useful asset for school teachers and parents who are supporting individuals with developmental disorders. In the near future, I hope to embark on a new study that will investigate the impact of hormone levels and neural activities on communication skills.

I am also serving as the school counselor at the Junior High School affiliated with the Faculty of Education, Kumamoto University. While it is important to collect data and statistically analyze and publish them in academic papers, providing counseling and support to parents and children who need help and empowerment plays an important role in my career satisfaction. One of the rewards of studying psychology is that it allows one to effectively help people in need.

Many students may consider psychology as a discipline that analyzes literary texts to explore motifs and symbols or analyze human behavior using questionnaires. Psychology has great potential for future development when psychologists collaborate with experimental researchers and participate in interdisciplinary work with molecular biologists and other scientists. I will continue to take up exciting challenges.

A couch in Prof. Nishikawa’s office. Cats are a passion of Prof. Nishikawa. Her laboratory is decorated with cat face cushions and other cat paraphernalia. Prof. Nishikawa hopes to research the human–pet relationship in the future, such as how cats and other pets calm humans.

Expand your social perspectives!

◆: Please give a message to our students!

Prof. Nishikawa: At the beginning of my seminars, I tell the students, “I will always be available if you need help, but the first thing you should do is to think and act on your own.” I am ready to provide them with the advice and suggestions they need as long as they have done their part.

I encourage students to open their eyes to see what is happening in their communities now. When I was a high school student, I had little concern about what was taking place in Japan. My interest was focused on other countries. When I started to live in Sweden, I realized how little I knew about my home country.

Psychology research themes are often connected to social occurrences. Examples of research topics include the social problems of individuals with developmental disorders and the status of hikikomori (or social recluses). More recent topics may include the social impact of distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Societal changes give rise to new research topics. I encourage students to expand their social perspectives!