by Angela Herring

If a war scene, horror flick, or some other neg­a­tive image appears on the tele­vi­sion, older adults will tend to avert their eyes.

Derek Isaa­cowitz, asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Science’s Depart­ment of Psy­chology, has studied this behavior for sev­eral years using eye-​​tracking tech­nology in a novel way to pin­point exactly what a person is fixing his or her atten­tion on and for how long. In the case of older adults, the results so far have revealed a pat­tern of viewing focused on pos­i­tive stimuli that may serve emo­tion regulation—and may par­tially explain the higher levels of hap­pi­ness that are also recorded among older adults.

But the cur­rent research set­ting is a bit too con­trived, Isaa­cowitz said, and it may not be the best way to test the ques­tion of how older and younger adults differ in their strate­gies to con­trol their emotions.

“In our everyday lives, when we’re reg­u­lating our emo­tion, it’s rarely the case that some­body forces you to look at some­thing,” he said. “We exert con­trol over what we are exposed to, and that may be a really crit­ical way that we reg­u­late our emotion.”

For instance, instead of simply looking away from the TV or com­puter screen, one could change the channel or nav­i­gate to a new Web page. In order to get around this, he has recently begun to sim­u­late the real world expe­ri­ence in the lab by offering par­tic­i­pants a variety of media to choose from, including mul­tiple screens and websites.

“But there’s a big tech­no­log­ical problem here,” Isaa­cowitz explained. “The envi­ron­ment is dif­ferent for every person because every person chooses dif­ferent things so there’s no way for the system to auto­mat­i­cally process data so we can look at atten­tion in a more fine-​​grained manner.”

With funding from a new grant from the National Insti­tutes of Health, Isaacowitz’s team will address this problem by joining forces with researchers from the game design pro­gram who are well versed in exactly this sort of challenge.

Isaa­cowitz said Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to use-​​inspired, inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research made this project pos­sible. It’s here that he met Magy Seif El-​​Nasr, asso­ciate pro­fessor of game design, at his new fac­ulty ori­en­ta­tion and imme­di­ately rec­og­nized a great col­lab­o­ra­tive oppor­tu­nity in his midst.

The researchers will first build a soft­ware plat­form to auto­mat­i­cally detect what a person is looking at on a screen the moment he or she decides to look at or away from it. Once they have this plat­form, they will begin testing it with two sep­a­rate ques­tions: first, how do people use their choices and their atten­tion together to reg­u­late out of a bad mood? And second, how do they use them to main­tain a good mood?

“We’re trying to under­stand in the envi­ron­ments that older people actu­ally spend their time in, how do they reg­u­late the emo­tional inputs of their envi­ron­ment,” said Isaa­cowitz. “We want to know how people use their choices dif­fer­ently by age, and also how these age pat­terns are influ­enced by the mood we are in when we start making the choices.” This will help them under­stand how adults of dif­ferent ages use the tools in the envi­ron­ment to help reg­u­late how they feel.

Originally published on news@Northeastern on September 16, 2013.