Emerging Perspectives in Affective Science

A symposium featuring talks by four young investigators.

Monday, June 4, 2012
12:00 – 2:30pm
Alumni Center Pavilion, Northeastern University

Eliza Bliss-Moreau, California National Primate Research Center, University of California, Davis
Comparative Affective Science: What can we learn from nonhuman primates?

This talk will explore the utility and promise of studying affect in nonhuman primates (Rhesus macaques; Macaca mulatta). I will first discuss how two translational metrics can be used to explore individual differences in affective processing in both humans and nonhuman animals. I will then present data from two studies demonstrating that measures of cardiac physiology and behavioral reactivity can be used to assess macaque affective states. Finally, I will address the unique contributions of animal models to the study of affect by presenting data documenting individual differences in macaque affect following experimentally induced changes in brain structure. Together, these findings suggest that animal models of affect can help answer questions about the evolution and fundamental properties of the mind that would be untenable if studying only humans.

Kristen Lindquist, Harvard University Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative
Emotions emerge from core affect and conceptualization

Emotions form the fabric of memories, social interactions, and culture. They affect our health, our ability to make decisions, and can make our break relationships with others. Together, the existing evidence suggests that emotions are important mental events—but amongst great agreement about the importance of emotions exists much disagreement about what they actually are. In this talk, I will weigh in on this question by presenting evidence that emotions are mental states that emerge from the combination of more basic psychological parts that are not specific to emotion. I will present behavioral, psychophysiological, neuropsychological, and neuroimaging evidence demonstrating that emotion experiences and perceptions emerge in consciousness when people use representations of prior experiences to make meaning of body states in a given instance. I close by discussing how such a constructionist model of emotion changes how scientists might think of the mind more generally.

Leah Somerville, Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology, Weill Medical College of Cornell University
Interactions between emotional processes across timescales: The case of fear and anxiety

Psychological accounts have long recognized the diversity of emotional experience in terms of intensity, timescale, and cognitive consequences. However, our understanding of the brain circuitries that support these processes is limited by the type of emotion assayed in the laboratory – which is typically a brief response to a valenced cue. In my talk, I will present approaches my colleagues and I have taken to target anxiety-relevant emotional processes across a broader range of timescales. I will present data demonstrating that anxiety maintenance draws on distinct neural circuitries relative to the detection of anxiety-relevant emotional cues. Further, these circuitries interact across timescales, providing insight into how emotional states can up- or down-regulate moment to moment emotional processes. Finally, I will feature ongoing research considering linkages between neurodevelopmental properties of these circuitries and the staggered emergence of key symptoms of anxiety disorders during the first two decades of life.

Jamil Zaki, Social Cognition & Affective Neuroscience Lab, Department of Psychology, Harvard University
A sensory integration approach to emotion perception

For as long as scientists have studied how people understand others’ minds, they have thought this task must be something like perceiving the physical world. Here I focus on extending this classic simile in a new direction: towards the study of “multi-modal” emotion perception. When encountering complex social cues—as they almost always do—perceivers use multiple processes for understanding others’ emotions. Like physical senses (e.g., vision or audition), emotion perception processes have often been studied as thought they operate in relative isolation. In the domain of physical perception, this assumption has broken down, following evidence that perception instead involves pervasive interactions between the senses. Recent data—including those from two studies I will present here—demonstrate that emotion perception processes similarly interact in ways that shape judgments about others’ affective states. These parallels suggest that researchers can leverage insights about physical perception to move towards a more complete understanding of emotion perception. Such a sensory integration approach further offers hints about Bayesian models that could formally describe how people understand each other’s internal states based on complex, multifaceted cues.

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