Karolien van den Akker and Anita Jansen Karolien van den Akker and Anita Jansen Sacha Ruland

“Pavlov, does that ring a bell?”

In Mind
Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Wednesday, 05 February 2014 14:57

According to ‘eating professor’ Anita Jansen, a scientist must also be a writer. Those who write clearly think clearly, she teaches her PhD candidates. And apparently, they listen: Karolien van den Akker is barely halfway through her PhD research, but has already won the Publication Prize of the journal De Psycholoog. “I can’t stand ‘authority arguments’”, says Jansen. “You know, of the sort: I’m a professor so that’s how it is.”

Even at the mere hint of a milkshake in a virtual environment, we humans start drooling”, the psychologists laugh. The interview is permeated by their infectious humour. “Pavlov, does that ring a bell?” jokes Jansen, professor of Psychology, in response to her PhD candidate’s explanation of an experiment. Van den Akker had tested participants in virtual reality: “In one environment they were given sips of milkshake; in another they got nothing. Very quickly, even just seeing the ‘milkshake environment’ made them produce saliva.” “That’s how a new eating habit is learned. It only takes a few such connections for your body to start demanding something tasty”, explains Jansen. “These are very robust learning processes that Karolien has demonstrated in the lab.”

Van den Akker’s PhD research focuses on the conditioning processes involved in habitual eating; that is, eating out of habit in the absence of hunger. This is an example of classical conditioning, “a learning process that was identified a century ago, and that sounds simple”, but is nevertheless a complex process. Jansen gives an example. “A certain environment serves as a predictor or ‘cue’ for tasty food. But some people always eat in response to this cue, while others only do sometimes. Is this a difference in learning, in particular unlearning? And what role does a previous successful or failed attempt to lose weight play in this? Karolien tries to map these learning processes.”


They meet once a week. “That’s quite a lot for a busy professor like Anita”, says Van den Akker. “We talk about new research and ideas, and I get a lot of freedom to conduct experiments. It’s always a nice atmosphere, sitting and brainstorming together.” Jansen: “Karolien is a perfectionist. She immerses herself in the subject matter, knows a great deal about conditioning and also knows how to apply this in our eating research.” The ‘eating professor’ sees coaching as her most important role. “I make sure she keeps going in the right direction, and I put the brakes on when needed. This or that may be interesting, but sometimes you have to put it aside for the time being. Our first goal is to solve the main problem. We’re working on a great line of research and strong papers. And it’s also important that Karolien can continue on in this way in academia.”

Do they have differences of opinion now and then? They certainly do – and the question promptly gives rise to a difference of opinion on the exact nature of those differences. “No, no, no”, Van den Akker exclaims in response to her supervisor’s example. “It was about whether you feel hungry simultaneously with the onset of preparatory physical responses, or whether that comes afterwards.” Isn’t she intimidated by Jansen’s status? Laughing: “Anita can certainly be very persuasive. But hierarchical? Not that I’ve noticed, though I don’t know if that’s the intention or not.” “That’s the intention”, Jansen confirms. “I can’t stand ‘authority arguments’; you know, of the sort: I’m a professor so that’s how it is. I’m about good substantive arguments. My aim is that within four years Karolien should know more about conditioning than me. She’s already well on her way.”


Jansen can’t tell her PhD candidates often enough how important it is to write clearly. “A scientist has to be able to write well. It forces you to think. If you can explain a complex topic on paper, then you’ve understood it.” Jansen also sees this as a good way to sell your science. “You have to continue to communicate ideas and explain why they’re so interesting. That said, I don’t think everything needs to be valorised. The risk is that soon enough only research with direct social relevance will receive funding. We have to allow room for research on the square centimetre by nerdy scientists who may not be able to explain it to managers and the general public. We don’t all have to be TED-genic.”

Paramount for Jansen is that the content of a paper is interesting. But it also needs a clear introduction and a catchy title. It should clearly identify the problem. And it should be concise: indeed, the shorter the better. Van den Akker: “I wrote very carefully in the beginning, with lots of ‘maybes’ and ‘it could be thats’. I’ve learned this isn’t necessary in every sentence, and in pieces for a wider audience it’s just confusing.” Each text therefore goes back and forth between the two. Jansen’s writing tip: “I always say, you should do what you think is good. It’s your article after all.”

Karolien van den Akker (1988) is a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology at Maastricht University. She studies the conditioning processes involved in eating behaviour, focusing on habitual eating. She also examines the interaction between learning mechanisms and dieting to figure out how people can successfully lose weight in the long term.

Anita Jansen (1960) has been professor of Psychology at Maastricht University since 1999. Together with her ‘eating group’, she studies eating behaviour, eating disorders and obesity in the broadest sense: from brain activity and cognitive processes to behaviour patterns and healthcare interventions. She received a prestigious Vici grant for her research on obesity.

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