Health Psychology PhD candidate Kimberly Carrière talks to In The Spotlight about how her unrelenting curiosity led her to research our relationship with food and explore its effect on our body and mind.
Research Area: Health Psychology
Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Bärbel Knäuper
Tell us a bit about yourself: I was born and raised in Montreal, Canada, and my path into psychology was rather coincidental. I started my bachelor’s degree at McGill University pursuing a major in Art History since I came from a Liberal Arts background that mainly studied philosophy, history, and creative arts. I had never taken a psychology class before university, and in year two of my undergraduate degree, I registered for a class in Cognition and got hooked. From there on, I decided to pursue a double major in Art History and Psychology since Art History satisfied my cultural and historical interests and Psychology satisfied my unrelenting curiosity. I soon discovered that Psychology is not just about asking important questions, but it is also about developing thoughtful experiments to acquire answers to these questions. This is what made me decide to pursue a PhD in Psychology – I wanted to continue asking questions and acquiring answers. Whenever I think back to this move from Art History to Psychology, I smile; Life is full of serendipitous events and this event is one that I definitely don’t regret!
Tell us about your research in three sentences or less: My research focuses on uncovering the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness training in reducing obesity-related eating behaviors such as emotional eating. Mindfulness can be thought of as an ability to bring our attention to the present moment so that we are fully aware of what is going on inside and around us in a way that is not reactive or judgmental. Learning to access this innate ability has been shown to be helpful in managing disordered eating behaviors, however, we do not quite know why. My work is about answering this why. I am particularly interested in understanding what aspects of mindfulness are most important for helping individuals develop a better relationship with food, especially when it comes to managing cravings and impulsive urges to eat when under emotional distress.
What excites you most about your research? I have always been curious about our relationship with food and its effect on our body and mind. For example, why do some individuals struggle with losing weight or managing their food-related cravings while others do not. Addressing these questions is really exciting for me because I have the amazing privilege of uncovering certain answers that can help others feel more in control of their eating behaviors and to provide them with tools that will help facilitate successful weight management.
Is there any recent or upcoming work you’d like to tell us about? I have spent the past year developing a new mindful eating questionnaire that measures various components of eating-related mindfulness. This new questionnaire will help improve our understanding of why and how mindfulness reduces problematic eating behaviors in individuals with overweight and obesity. The preliminary findings of our work are very exciting because they suggest a distinction between the awareness and the attitude components of mindful eating. The awareness component describes an individual’s ability to bring purposeful attention to eating-related experiences, such as noticing the taste, smell, and texture of their food. The attitude component describes an individual’s ability to maintain an objective and non-judgmental stance towards their eating-related experiences, such as refraining from criticizing food cravings or urges to eat when not hungry. Although both components are well known in the mindfulness literature, present-moment awareness has received more interest from Western studies, particularly in the field of mindful eating. Interestingly, the results of our study allude to the potentially significant role of the attitude component of mindful eating for healthy weight management. Although an individual may be aware of the thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations that accompany their urges to eat, they may find it difficult to maintain a mental distance from food cravings, feelings of distress, or their critical inner voice. This difficulty can be particularly problematic for emotional eaters or binge eaters as it might increase their risk for compulsive overeating. My results suggest that present-moment awareness might actually perpetuate obesity-related eating behaviors if not accompanied by skills of non-judgment and equanimity.
Do you have any experiences that have particularly shaped you or your research? In my second year of my bachelor’s degree, I became a research coordinator for Dr. Julien Lacaille, who at the time was a graduate student in my current thesis supervisor’s lab. His project investigated the beneficial effects of mindfulness meditation for stress reduction. This was my first introduction to research, and it shaped me tremendously. This is where I was introduced to mindfulness and its utility in better understanding the underlying mechanisms of therapeutic change. The environment of Dr. Knäuper’s lab along with Julien’s amazing supervision solidified by passion for scientific investigation. From there onwards, I was lovestruck by what research could offer and how it was a perfect vessel for my curiosity. I always think back to the day that I saw the job posting in Dr. Knäuper’s lab. If I had never applied for that position, my career trajectory would have probably been very different!
Do you have an interesting fact about yourself that you'd like to share? I am a twin! Although my brother and I are complete opposites, we share an unrelenting enthusiasm for acquiring knowledge. Today, he applies this enthusiasm to building and deconstructing engines, whereas I apply it to people!
Do you have an interesting random fact or statistic that fascinates you? Did you know that banana trees aren’t actually trees, they’re herbs! Likewise, did you know that many of the items that we consider vegetables (e.g., cucumbers, string beans, eggplants, pumpkins) are actually fruits!
What is your favourite thing to do outside of your research? If I am not on campus working, I am at my karate school either teaching or training. I started karate at the age of nine and it has become a huge part of my life, so much so that it was one of the contributing factors in my decision to stay at McGill. Still to this day, I get to compete around the world in several competitions a year. It is my other life that I have been so fortunate enough to continue throughout my studies with the tremendous support of my thesis supervisor and family.
What are your plans after leaving McGill? I would very much like to be a research / practitioner and will most definitely be pursuing a post-doc after I graduate to see where it takes me. As long as I am able to continue to pursue the things that interest me, I will be satisfied.
Do you have any advice for younger students in the Psychology Department? “Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning” (Gloria Steinem).
Do not be afraid of dreaming big and following your passions, even if these passions aren’t exactly what you originally anticipated. Stay open-minded, get curious, and don’t be afraid to make a mistake! Remember that you can’t learn anything from being perfect! Perfection is uninteresting, constant improvement is way more fun 😊
How can people contact you? You can contact me through email at: kimberly.carriere [at] mail.mcgill.ca.