Affective science is the interdisciplinary field focused on understanding emotional and affective processes. Affective science involves research on emotion, emotion regulation, mood disorders, and affective neuroscience. Affective scientists use a variety of methods and approaches in their work, from purely behavioral and organizational studies in humans to molecular and cellular studies in animals. There are multiple faculty in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, across program areas, who focus on affective processes in their research programs. This research cluster has formed a discussion group with faculty in the department and across campus, with the aim of catalyzing emotion research that crosses traditional disciplines and methods to address important societal issues, such as substance abuse and fear disorders.
Using both human behavior and neuroimaging techniques, research in my lab seeks to understand the mechanisms by which reward learning changes how we direct our attention in the future. To this end, we have developed an approach in which simple, arbitrary stimuli are paired with reward in a training procedure and then appear as task-irrelevant distractors during performance of a subsequent task. We examine how these previously reward-associated stimuli are processed in both healthy participants and in individuals who struggle with addiction and other psychopathologies. Other, related lines of investigation examine how punishment learning influences subsequent attention and the mechanisms by which goal-directed attentional control can be recruited in order to minimize distraction.
My research aims at establishing causal relationships between early-life experiences, brain, biochemistry, and behavior. Specifically, my research interest center on investigating how exposure to psychotropic drugs (e.g. stimulants, antidepressants, prescription drugs), and stress (whether physical or emotional), alter the biochemical integrity of neuronal pathways involved in the regulation of mood and motivated behaviors, and how these pharmacological, environmental, and/or genetic manipulations early-in-life affect biochemical and behavioral functioning later in adulthood. Understanding the relationship(s) between brain and behavior from a developmental perspective can provide novel insights for the development of therapeutics for stress and drug dependence.
My central research questions relate to understanding the mechanisms and trajectories of typical and atypical emotional development. I am primarily interested in the interplay between biology and the environment as they relate to individual differences in emotional development, adjustment, and mental health. Contributing factors to children’s development, along with their interplay, are examined in my laboratory through the use of several complementary methodologies across a variety of studies. These studies emphasize (1) multi-method assessment of affective behavior, (2) childhood temperament, (3) proximal and distal contexts, (4) physiological correlates of affective behaviors, and (5) early risk factors for development of internalizing and externalizing problems.
My lab examines how personality and situational factors intersect to influence happiness, psychological well-being, and alcohol use. A primary line of research aims to understand how these variables contribute to one’s belief that life is meaningful. However, we also examine how affect and motivation contribute to cognitive processes associated with drug and alcohol use. A final line of research investigates the byproduct of happiness by examining how positive emotions bear on judgments of well-being and predict important objective life outcomes (e.g., having a child).
The underlying premise of my research is that emotional processes are the foundation of behavior and thought. We examine the role of affective reactions and emotions in how people think about the future and what they think will happen to them in the future. We are also investigating when and why particular emotions might improve functioning and decision making.
Emotions convey important information about events and people in our environment. However, when an emotional response is not well-matched to the situation (e.g., the sound of a car backfiring elicits fear), it ceases to be adaptive, and may hinder a person’s ability to function effectively in society. Work in the Multimethod Affect and Cognition (MAC) lab uses brain and psychophysiological measures in humans to study emotional response in psychiatric health and disease. The long-term goal of this research is to reduce the cost and suffering associated with emotional disorders (e.g., anxiety, depression) by improving diagnosis and guiding new treatments.
Remembering emotional, particularly traumatic and fearful, experiences is essential for avoiding future threats. In some individuals, fear memories can become intrusive and overwhelming, resulting in anxiety and trauma disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder. My lab uses animal models to decipher the brain circuits and neural codes mediating emotional learning and memory. We are particularly interested in how fear memories can be extinguished, or even erased, with the aim of developing novel neurotherapeutic interventions for pathological fear in humans.
My research is focused on pain and empathy, with the goal of understanding the sources of disparities in pain. Empathy affects how people respond to the suffering of others. In my lab, we examine empathy for physical, social, and emotional pain and suffering using behavioral and human neuroimaging methodologies. Recent work has also focused on the influence of cognitive and affective processes on pain physiology and brain response. Other lines of research include cross-cultural examinations of pain and empathy and studies of social-environmental effects on health.
Research in my laboratory examines how pain is altered by emotion and stress, and the mechanisms mediating these interactions. Recent studies investigate the effects of psychological trauma on the sensitization of pain and the mitigating effects of written emotional disclosure. Other work examines the effects of persistent pain on motivation and decision-making using EEG to assess changes in prefrontal regulation. Most of our studies use quantitative sensory testing procedures combined with self-report, behavioral, EEG, autonomic, endocrine, and inflammatory measures to elucidate the underlying mechanisms. We also investigate the contribution of affect regulation and stress in clinical pain.
Control and fear have an inverse relationship. The ability to exert influence over dangerous or risky situations can transform a threat into a solvable problem, whereas a lack of influence can heighten the impact of an aversive event. The brain contains learning and memory systems that constantly determine what is and what is not within one’s control. My lab uses the techniques of modern neuroscience to parse this circuitry in order to understand the mechanisms by which learned control influences aversive memory. Because mastery over adverse circumstances is a potent means by which to reduce fear and anxiety, this work has relevance to PTSD and other trauma-related disorders.
Anxiety disorders affect almost one-third of U.S. adults over the lifetime and many of these disorders are more prevalent in women compared to men. For example, women are more than twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than men. Sex differences in anxiety may be a product of differences in neural circuitry as well as circulating gonadal hormones. Using a well-established rodent model of anxiety, my lab focuses on the role of gonadal hormones in the regulation of brain structures mediating fear and anxiety. The study of cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying sex differences in this rodent model is highly relevant to understanding sex differences in human anxiety.
Research on the neurobiological bases of memory organization in the brain indicates that memory is composed of multiple systems that have distinct neuroanatomy and operating principles. In our laboratory we are particularly interested in investigating the various factors that determine which memory system controls the acquisition and expression of learned behavior. One factor that appears critical is the emotional state of the organism, such that robust emotional arousal favors the use of a “habitual” memory system over a “cognitive” memory system. Our research involves manipulation of different brain areas that mediate this phenomenon, with the goal of elucidating the anatomical and neurochemical bases of the emotion-memory link.
My students and I study self-control, especially the dynamics of self-control and how exerting control influences subsequent motivation and behavior. We have a particular interest in emotion regulation and the factors that contribute to success or failure at emotion regulation. One aspect of this research program considers cognition-emotion interactions and the contributions of individual differences in cognitive ability (e.g., executive functioning) to successful emotion regulation using a mixture of behavioral, psychophysiological, and neuroscience methods.
Drug addiction is a chronic disease that is characterized by a loss of control over drug use and a compulsive desire to seek out drugs, despite harmful consequences or the desire to quit. Research in my lab uses animal models of drug self-administration to investigate the neurobiological mechanisms underlying drug seeking and relapse. We are particularly interested in understanding the neural circuitry related to craving and relapse triggered by drug-associated cues and stress.