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2009 Research News

department of psychology


Thalia Goldstein has published The Pleasure of Unadulturated Sadness: Experiencing Sorrow in Fiction, NonFiction and "In Person" in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics Creativity, and the Arts. The data published suggest the paradoxical fact that we avoid sadness in real life, but seek it out in films. Participants judged their sadness and anxiety in response to fictional films, and a remembered autobiographical event.

Participants experienced equivalent levels of sadness in response to films and in response to a sad personal event. Anxiety levels, however, were significantly higher in response to personally experienced events. The fact that sadness elicited by films is unadulterated by the anxiety that accompanies the sadness of personal experience may explain, in part, the pleasure we derive from watching sad films.


Fear-Induced Reduction of Eating

Gorica Petrovich published a paper in the December 2nd issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. The paper was among four selected manuscripts featured in This Week in The Journal. The study used a novel behavioral paradigm for inhibition of eating by an aversive cue. A tone previously paired with shocks inhibited eating in food-deprived states. The effect was abolished with bilateral lesions of the central amygdala, but not with bilateral lesions of the basolateral amygdala. Lesions of each structure abolished freezing, another fear-related behavior induced by the same cue. The findings highlight an amygdalar subsystem critical for short-term anorexia triggered by an impending aversive event. The findings from the animal model are relevant to regulation of eating in humans, and provide a framework for defining the critical brain substrates underlying anorexia.


Drug of Choice

Boston College Magazine has published this article by Gene Heyman, a highly abridged and altered version of one of the chapters from his book: Addiction: A Disorder of Choice.


"Autistic" Local Processing Bias Also Found in Children Gifted in Realistic Drawing

Jennifer Drake's paper entitled "'Autistic' Local Processing Bias Also Found in Children Gifted in Realistic Drawing" will be published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, the leading journal on autism. The paper shows that precocious realists have the same kind of visual and spatial abilities reported in autistic children. Co-authors on the paper include Amanda Redash, Katelyn Coleman, Jennifer Haimson, and Ellen Winner.


Eyes on the Prize

Brett Ford will have a paper published in Psychological Science. The paper, titled "Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize: Anger and Visual Attention to Threats and Rewards" demonstrates that anger biases visual attention towards rewards, but not threats. Such findings suggest that the effects of emotions on visual attention may be driven by motivation, rather than valence.


Could Your Kid Really Have Painted That?

Angelina Hawley presented her poster, "Could Your Kid Really Have Painted That? Distinguishing Between Paintings by Abstract Expressionist Masters and Paintings by Children, Chimps, Monkeys and Elephants," at the First Copenhagen Neuroaesthetics Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark from September 24-26th.

Angelina will be giving a 30-minute oral presentation on this research at the 5th International Conference On The Arts In Society in Sydney, Australia, to be held July 22-25, 2010. To view the abstract, click here.


The Effect of Valence on Younger and Older Adults' Attention in a Rapid Serial Visual Presentation Task

Katherine Mickley Steinmetz, Keely Muscatell, and Elizabeth Kensinger will have an article published in the journal Psychology and Aging. The data published in this article suggests that emotion influences attention in a similar fashion for younger and older adults. This result was significant as older adults can sometimes show a "positivity effect"  in memory. However, this study revealed that the positivity effect does not extend to increased detection of positive words for older adults.


Young infants show remarkable numerical abilities that mimic those of adults, although there is one surprising discrepancy—infants consistently fail to discriminate small sets (3 or fewer) from large ones (4 or more). For example, they do not notice the difference between 2 and 4 items. This study reveals that 7-month old infants require a 4-fold change in number to succeed in these small-large discriminations, suggesting that infants represent small values in a distinctly different fashion than large values.

Sara Cordes has published these findings in Developmental Psychology this November in an article titled "Crossing the Divide: Infants Discriminate Small From Large Numerosities."


Music training shapes structural brain development

Fifteen months of instrumental music training begun at age 6 leads to structural brain changes that diverge from typical brain development. Brain growth correlated with improvements in musically relevant motor and auditory skills. These findings demonstrate training-induced structural brain plasticity in childhood. Journal of Neuroscience, 29(10):3019-3025.


Sean MacEvoy's recent fMRI work sheds light on how the human visual system avoids confusion when faced with the complex environments we encounter every day. Patterns of brain activity evoked when participants viewed multiple objects simultaneously were predicted by the average of patterns evoked by each object viewed alone, ensuring that information about each object was preserved. This relationship was strong enough that researchers could "read" participant's brains to reveal which pair was being viewed at a given point in time. An article documenting these findings appeared in the June 9, 2009 issue of the journal Current Biology.


Addiction: A Disorder of Choice

AddictionGene Heyman's new book, Addiction: A Disorder
of Choice
, was published in June 2009 by Harvard University Press. From the publisher's website:

"In a book sure to inspire controversy, Gene Heyman argues that conventional wisdom about addiction—that it is a disease, a compulsion beyond conscious control—is wrong.

Drawing on psychiatric epidemiology, addicts’ autobiographies, treatment studies, and advances in behavioral economics, Heyman makes a powerful case that addiction is voluntary."

This is an important book. In clear and compelling prose Heyman lays out evidence from real-world observation and psychological and pharmacological laboratories that addiction is a choice not a disease. He shows that the causes of addiction, its control, and its potential reduction are the same as the causes, control, and reduction of all voluntary behavior. The book has the potential to revolutionize the behavior of anyone involved in the control of addiction including, most importantly, addicts themselves.
—Howard Rachlin, author of The Science of Self-Control

Most medical practitioners believe that addiction is a disease. By showing that self-destructive drug consumption actually responds to information and incentives, Gene Heyman's path breaking book should make us rethink our conventional, and inadequate, drug policies.
—David Laibson, Harvard University


A Functional MRI Study of the Circumplex Model of Affect

A paper co-authored by Jim Russell, titled "Neural Systems Subserving Valence and Arousal during the Experience of Induced Emotions: A Functional MRI Study of the Circumplex Model of Affect," was accepted for publication in the journal Emotion.

Author(s): Colibazzi, Tiziano; Posner, Jonathan; Wang, Zhishun; Gorman, Daniel; Gerber, Andrew; Yu, Shan; Zhu, Hongtu; Kangarlu, Alayar; Duan, Yunsuo; Russell, James; Peterson, Bradley.


Christina Leclerc's paper in APA manual

Christina Leclerc’s 2008 paper entitled Effects of Age on Detection of Emotional Information, which was originally published in Psychology and Aging, was included in the newly revised “Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association” that was published in its 6th edition this summer. The manuscript is presented in its entirety as a sample paper on which the new formatting guidelines have been applied.


Aging and memory

Jill Waring and Elizabeth Kensinger have an abstract for their recent publication, "Effects of emotional valence and arousal upon memory trade-offs with aging," here.


Scott Slotnick's article "Does the hippocampus mediate objective binding or subjective remembering?" will appear in NeuroImage. Previous studies have confounded context memory with "remembering" (memory with specific detail), and item memory with "knowing" (memory without specific detail). This functional MRI (fMRI) study is the first to independently test the binding hypothesis and remembering hypothesis of hippocampal function. The results only provided strong support for the binding hypothesis. These findings challenge the widely held assumption that the hippocampus is preferentially associated with subjective remembering, and highlight the role of this region in the binding of feature and context information during memory construction.


Lisa Feldman Barrett receives Pioneer Award Supplement

Lisa Feldman Barrett has received a Pioneer Award supplement for the  project titled "Emotions are emergent events constrained by affective and conceptual processes." Congratulations on receiving this stimulus funding!


Psychological states must be studied scientifically

The future of psychology depends upon recognizing that complex psychological states are constructed and that their study cannot be entirely replaced by the study of brain states, argues Lisa Feldman Barrett in the lead article in Perspectives in Psychological Science's special issue devoted to the "Next Big Questions in Psychology." To read the article, click here.


Elizabeth Kensinger's book published

Elizabeth Kensinger’s new book, Emotional Memory Across the Adult Lifespan, about how we remember emotional experiences better than unemotional ones, was published December 10th by Psychology Press.


"Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation"

Maya Tamir has published a paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science. "In short," she says, "the paper presents an instrumental approach to emotion regulation, according to which people want to feel even unpleasant emotions, when these emotions promote the attainment of long-term goals."


It is typically assumed that people always want to feel good. Recent evidence, however, demonstrates that people want to feel unpleasant emotions, such as anger or fear, when these emotions promote the attainment of their long-term goals. According to an instrumental approach to emotion regulation, when immediate benefits outweigh future benefits, people should want to feel pleasant emotions. However, when future benefits outweigh immediate benefits, people may want to feel useful emotions, even if they are unpleasant. The article describes this instrumental approach, reviews relevant empirical evidence, and discusses the implications of this approach to promoting adaptive emotional experiences.


Springer Early Career Achievement Award

Elizabeth Kensinger is the 2009 recipient of the Springer Early Career Achievement Award in Research on Adult Development and Aging. This award is given annually by the American Psychological Association Division of Adult Development and Aging to "an individual whose work has made significant early career contributions to understanding critical issues in the psychology of adult development and aging."


Local Processing Bias in Children Gifted in Drawing

Some autistic individuals have a talent for realistic drawing and show a local processing bias, which could explain the astonishing precision in their drawings. Appearing in May's issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, an article by Jennifer Drake and Ellen Winner ("Precocious realists: Perceptual and cognitive characteristics associated with drawing talent in non-autistic children") reports that children with a precocious ability to draw realistically show this same bias. This study provides the first evidence that a local processing bias may be a continuous trait found in both autism and in non-autistic individuals with drawing talent.


On the Transition to College

Appearing in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Maya Tamir's new article, titled "The Social Costs of Emotional Suppression: A Prospective Study of the Transition to College," reports that suppressing emotion causes "lower social support, less closeness to others, and lower social satisfaction."


New Theory on Play

Professor Peter Gray's new article, "Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence," presents a new theory about early human adaptation to a highly cooperative way of life. It suggests that our ancestors capitalized on our capacities for play as a primary means of overcoming our inherited primate tendencies toward aggression and dominance, which would have made such cooperation impossible. The article will appear in April's American Journal of Play.


The thesis here is that hunter-gatherers promoted, through cultural means, the playful side of their human nature, and that this made possible their egalitarian, non-autocratic, intensely cooperative ways of living. Hunter-gather bands, with their fluid membership, are likened to social play groups, which people could freely join or leave. Freedom to leave the band set the stage for the individual autonomy, sharing, and consensual decision-making within the band. Hunter-gatherers used humor, deliberately, to maintain equality and stop quarrels. Their means of sharing had game-like qualities. Their religious beliefs and ceremonies were playful, founded on assumptions of equality, humor, and capriciousness among the deities. They maintained playful attitudes in their hunting, gathering, and other sustenance activities, partly by allowing each person to choose when, how, and how much they would engage in such activities. Children were continuously free to play and explore, and through these activities they acquired the skills, knowledge, and values of their culture. Play, in other mammals as well as in humans, counteracts tendencies toward dominance, and hunter-gatherers appear to have promoted play quite deliberately for that purpose.


Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts

Appearing in...Appearing in February's Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Thalia Goldstein's article titled "Psychological Perspectives on Acting" outlines the links between acting training, Theory of Mind, Empathy, and Emotion Regulation, and discusses the implications of acting training on malleability of these skills. As a "New Scholar in the Field," she was asked to write an article on a topic she found important to the Psychology of the Arts.


The Value of Psychology 101

"Psychology has replaced philosophy as the discipline at the core of liberal arts education," says Peter Gray, whose article, titled "The Value of Psychology 101 in Liberal Arts Education: A Psychocentric Theory of the University," was recently published in the American Psychological Society's Observer (Oct. 2008, Vol. 21, #9, pp 29-32).


The Thin Ideal

Graduate student Shannon Snapp has found that adolescent girls who strongly internalize the thin ideal have more negative self-evaluations of competence and body image. This finding appeared in the September 2009 issue of Body Image: An International Journal of Research in an article titled “Internalization of the Thin Ideal Among Low-Income Ethnic Minority Adolescent Girls.


Negative Ads

Professor Elizabeth Kensinger was recently interviewed for an article in Seed Magazine on negative advertising in political campaigns: "The Double Negative."


Emotional Valence

Katherine Mickley conducted an fMRI study that examined whether emotional valence modulates the neural processes engaged during the encoding of information that is later vividly remembered versus only known to be familiar. The results suggested that memories for negative items may be vividly recollected due to increased sensory processing during encoding, while enhanced gist-based processing of positive information may lead to increased feelings of familiarity. Her results are published in her paper for Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience titled "Emotional Valence Influences the Neural Correlates Associated with Remembering and Knowing."


Constructing Fear

Common sense tells us that emotions like anger, fear, sadness and joy are each discrete, biologically given reactions to our surroundings. You feel fear when the “fear center” in your brain is triggered, causing your body to react in a certain way. Boston College researchers Lisa Feldman Barrett and Kristen Lindquist have recently called this view into question, however, suggesting that emotions are experiences composed of more basic ingredients: the information that people know about emotions (like fear, sadness, anger, joy, etc) and fundamental “gut” feelings like pleasure or displeasure. In this view, the emotion a person experiences in a given instance depends on how that person makes meaning of his or her “gut” feelings. To explore this idea, Lindquist and Barrett separately manipulated the different ingredients of emotion in the lab to “construct” different emotional experience in a group of volunteers. The results, which appear in the September issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, indicate that what we experience as fear is actually made up of two more basic components:  our concept of the emotion (what we “know” about fear) and unpleasant “gut” feelings. A better understanding of what causes emotions like fear and how to regulate them has implications for clinical therapy and emotional education. How you make meaning of what you feel can change how you experience the world.


Sleep and Memory

A study by Elizabeth Kensinger on sleep and memory, featured in ScienceDaily this August, "offers new insights into the specific components of emotional memories, suggesting that sleep plays a key role in determining what we remember – and what we forget." Described in "Sleep Selectively Preserves Emotional Memories," the study explains how sleep helps the brain remember emotionally important details and ignore everything else.


Maya Tamir in APS Observer

Maya Tamir's research on the value of negative emotions is described in the current issue of the APS Observer in the article "The Upside of Anger." Manipulating your emotions by electing to feel anger is a good way to prepare for an aggressive task, according to Maya, whose research shows that listening to angry music before playing an aggressive computer game like Soldier of Fortune improves game performance, whereas it does not help with a game like Diner Dash, about waiting tables.


Doctoral student Katherine Mickley Steinmetz has found that valence (positive or negative) most readily affects the qualities of young and older adults’ emotional memories when those memories are low in arousal. Older adults reported remembering more subjective memories about positive low arousal images, while younger adults reported remembering more subjective memories about negative low arousal images. This finding appeared in the May 2009 issue of Memory in an article titled "Phenomenological characteristics of emotional memories in younger and older adults."