Looking at the Non-binary World through a Cognitive Lens

Dr. Priyanka Srivastava’s current work at IIIT Hyderabad is breaking the glass ceiling in gender typecasting and depression. An early interest in human behaviour led her to study cognitive mechanisms, using virtual reality to screen and diagnose mental health issues in youth, linguistic geographies and vulnerable demographics.

As principal investigator at the Perception and Cognition (PAC) Lab, Priyanka’s team investigates the determinants of human perception and thinking ability and uses emerging technologies like VR/AR, to understand how our brain is wired. “VR can be a window to our brain in action and enable us to understand its adaptability and the association with ability to perceive, feel, think and act”, she explains.

Dr Srivastava and her students outing together together after two years of closing campus due to Covid

Fresh out of a 2-year post-doctoral stint at Germany, when Priyanka joined IIITH in 2012, interaction with students made her realise how prevalent mental health issues are and that struck a chord with her. Oblivious of the fact that her role as mental wellbeing coordinator on campus would have a surprising spinoff on her future research, she continued. She uses VR to study mental health issues, focusing at examining the risk factors for depression. While therapy was enticing, she saw a huge need for diagnostics and screening, especially for vulnerable demographies.

A recent symposium that she conducted at APS-ICPS (Association for Psychological Science, International Convention of Psychological Science) at Brussels, strengthened her belief about the need for technological aids for understanding mental health and wellbeing, and to be brought to primary health care centres. In today’s chaotic world, she sees the overarching need for psychological evaluation and education to be a part of regular medical consultation but at the same time she recognises the challenges posed in mental health assessments.

Federally funded by CSRI-DST and INMAS-DRDO, her Lab uses a combination of traditional and advanced technologies and methods, like ‘HTC vive EyePro and FOVE-VR’ (VR with eye-tracking), alongside desktop eye-tracking, speech, text and gait analyses, and behavioural psychophysics experiments to address key research questions on SADness (Stress, Anxiety and Depression).

In her early teens, Priyanka was deeply interested in human behaviour and gender identity and would scour newspapers to see how gender differences were being represented. It was a bold decision for the B.Sc. (Biology) graduate to join the Centre of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences (CBCS) at Allahabad University, the first Institute of its kind in India. Given her science background, things fell nicely into place and she was the first early batch to graduate M.Sc. and Ph.D in Cognitive Sciences. “My Ph.D thesis investigated the factors that modulate the time course of visual attention, emotion and task demands”, says the researcher whose cognitive and neuro-psychology education allowed her to experience the intersection of fundamental and applied clinical psychology and cognition.

She would meet Prof. Thomas Lachmann from Germany at the International Psychophysics Conference at Galway, Ireland. He was interested in the stimulus-based part of her research on attention processing. “My study on Global Local clicked, and I got an offer from the Cognitive and Developmental Psychology Lab at Technical University of Kaiserslautern, Germany for my postdoctoral research (2010-12)”, she adds, with a smile.

KL Lab, Germany
Different moments in time

A fortuitous meeting with IIITH’s Prof. Bipin Indurkhya and Prof. Jayanthi Sivaswamy at CBCS 2008, an international conference on Attention would bring Priyanka to the Cognitive Sciences Lab as a research scientist in 2012, a journey that she looks back with pride and a deep sense of fulfilment.  She joined the two-faculty department and would grow with the department, meeting interesting people along the way. During her early years at IIITH, when Priyanka was still struggling to find her space in the technology-driven Institute, her project on VR and 360-degree vision, funded by INMAS-DRDO and DST would earn accolades at Interact and EuroVR 2017 and would become one of the most cited papers from the project.

Priyanka designs innovative experiential methods like VR natural scenes and games to demonstrate concepts in her class. For her remote classes during the pandemic, she invented blindfolded locomotive experiences to reinforce learning.

Collaborations bring together the best minds
Her work spans over basic and applied cognition. In collaboration with several technology and human sciences experts from IIITH, e.g., LTRC, VLSI, and SERC, she examines the multiplicity of depression and the vulnerability. With Dr. Liza Rajashekar at NIMS, her group is developing language-free Indian contextualised digital battery for neuropsychological health assessment for Lupus patients coming from diverse linguistic backgrounds. “Whereas, with Dr. Shrikant Bharadwaj and Dr. Beula Christy at L V Prasad Eye Institute, I am investigating the role of modality in abstraction and creativity”, she adds. The LVPEI work is in continuation of her postdoctoral work at the Thomas Lab with Saskia Jaarsveld, a creativity researcher in Germany.

With Saskia and Kirstin, 2013

Looking beyond the Binary world
Clichés like ‘women don’t make good drivers’ force us to learn in a binary paradigm instead of a more diverse and inclusive society. She emphasises that it is not the gender, but training and environment that shapes you and determines your level of proficiency. “When we expanded the spectrum to look beyond the binary understanding of gender, we noticed that the transgender and queer segments have higher vulnerabilities”, she observes.

Non-binary and fluidity are interesting concepts for Priyanka, who believes that industrialisation reduces everything to a simple binary model and creates a bubble of thinking that pushes away the outliers. One does not get to see that people experiencing fluidity of different kinds actually have fulfilling lives and do not have to submit to the misery imposed on them by a binary world.

She actively promotes dialogue on equality and inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community, in personal and professional spaces. She acknowledges the influential role of Radhika Mamidi, LTRC professor, a friend and mentor, in bringing awareness on transgender identity and non-binary spaces on campus. “One significant milestone in campus history was the creation of a gender-appropriate hostel accommodation for a transgender student: the first of its kind in an Indian institute, at the undergraduate level.  It was a badge of honour for us”, she beams.

With Radhika M. and Parameshwari K. – sneaking out from a busy day

Creating inclusive spaces on campus
Emphasizing the need for more accommodating spaces for women, she says “Like many women, I have gone through gynaecological issues that took a toll on my psychological and physical health and rolled over on to my professional life. There is stigma attached to this and society has the tendency to walk on eggshells around the topic, while we should really be talking more about it.  “Our concerted effort to increase mental well-being awareness resonates with a positive change in acceptance/approach to mental health, thanks to the support team led by students, and SAC and SLC for making this happens”, she says excitedly. “With outreach programs like “Walls are back”, our volunteers Hardik Mittal, Furqan Shaik and Suyash Sethia helped creating an eye-catching wall art to spotlight mental health awareness”.

Mental Health events

A free-thinker emerges
Growing up in Allahabad steeped in tradition and culture, the free-thinking spirit credits her liberal minded parents with giving their daughters the freedom to build their belief systems in a manner that is considered quite avant-garde. Her early years were shaped by long discussions with her father on a range of topics, from the gender issue to classical movies.   She quotes Nida Fazli – “Achchi sangat baith kar sangi badle roop, jaise milkar aam se meethi ho gayi dhoop”, about the importance of friends at various junctures in her life.

The mindfulness-based meditation practitioner who loves ghazals and Ghalib, aspires to write books on mental health in Indian languages for children and young adults. A few book readings worth mentioning include Letters to a young scientist by Edwardo Wilson, Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Book collection by Oliver Sacks, Reality + by David Chalmer, By the sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damásio, How Emotions Are Made by Liza Barrett, The Teenage brain by Jensen, Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer and the Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia.

Imagine” says the dreamer, who someday would like the world to live as One. “I would like to see mental health de-stigmatised and to have a significant space in primary health practices. It’s a long journey to traverse, and I hope my research will contribute something fruitful for the milestones ahead in mental health research and practices.”

Deepa Shailendra is a freelance writer for interior design publications; an irreverent blogger, consultant editor and author of two coffee table books. A social entrepreneur who believes that we are the harbingers of the transformation and can bring the change to better our world.


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