Dr. Max Teaford was an undergrad music major at Walsh University in Ohio when a family experience with anorexia nervosa propelled him to the field of psychology.
With a doctorate from Miami University of Ohio in brain, cognitive and developmental science, Teaford joined the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga this summer to open the school’s Multisensory-Multisystem (MS2) lab to conduct research using virtual reality technology to study body ownership and spatial orientation. He currently is recruiting students as lab research assistants to study body ownership through the use of illusions, where one is made to feel as if a foreign object—real or virtual—is part of their body.
The applications could help improve prosthetic limb design for amputees and better condition military personnel to retain spatial orientation when, for example, their planes are inverted.
“I’ve got to be honest with you; I was a music major. I never in a million years thought I would be studying this or getting a doctorate. [My relative’s anorexia] basically changed my whole life trajectory,” Teaford said.
“The ability to make one feel like a foreign object is part of their body has implications for the development of prosthetics (specifically neuroprosthetics) as well as the development of exoskeletons, which has military applications. There also is evidence that these illusions can enhance memory of events in virtual environments, meaning these illusions have the potential to improve the efficacy of virtual reality-based training.”
Spatial orientation is knowing where the body is relative to external environments. Spatial disorientation can have lethal consequences; for instance, airplane crash deaths or permanent disabilities with multimillion-dollar hardware losses.
Using virtual reality allows Teaford and his team to create 3D environments where they can control exactly what participants see and what they can do through such devices as haptic vests and gloves.
“It’s also a good way for us to study how different factors like hypoxia or insufficient oxygen play a role in making people susceptible to becoming disoriented,” Teaford said. “In my laboratory, the Multisensory-Multisystem Lab, undergraduate and graduate students have the opportunity to learn how to use/program virtual reality technology and engage in research using it. My students are involved in every step of the research process, from the initial planning of studies to the publication of peer-reviewed manuscripts based upon the studies.”
Caleb Perry, a former Teaford research assistant and now a master’s student at Miami of Ohio, said the UTC assistant professor of psychology inspired him and led him to the field.
“The more I worked with him the more I fell in love with research because of his passion,” Perry said. “His work definitely inspired me. He’s a great person, super nice, very intelligent and always eager to answer questions. He cares about helping out in the world however he can.”
Born in California to an accountant and a school teacher, Teaford grew up in northeast Ohio. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Walsh University in 2014, a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Cleveland (Ohio) State University in 2016 and a doctor of philosophy degree from Miami of Ohio University in 2021.
When hired by UTC, he was doing post-doctorate work at Ohio State University and the Naval Medical Research Unit in Dayton, Ohio, through Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
His relative’s long, emotionally draining battle with anorexia (he did not want to mention specifics) influenced his studies and now his life’s work.
He has studied the body perception of anorexics and whether the loss of muscle mass has been caused by inactivity, starvation and/or excessive exercise.
“So something that a lot of those individuals experience is that they think they’re morbidly obese despite being emaciated,” Teaford said. By ferrying his loved one to and from doctor’s appointments, he learned anorexics have disconnections in their brains. “A lot of the individuals will basically hide that they’re not eating anything or outright refuse to eat if they’re confronted about it. And some of them will even refuse to drink. It’s really horrifying to watch.
“It really helped me understand other people,” he continued. “The biggest thing it did was help me develop empathy for people that are going through different struggles. You can never really understand the struggles people go through until you walk with someone else and go through it with them. It also really motivated me to study this.
“At Miami, a big part of my job as a graduate student was supervising undergraduate research assistants. That’s basically what I’m doing now. What’s going to be important with my students is really giving them that research experience, giving them experience publishing papers, because that’s going to really be beneficial for them when they go on to either pursue graduate study or if they’re pursuing a job.”