Dr Kevin Fong and Nathalie Nahai talk to historian Richard Firth-Godbehere, neuroscientist Adam Anderson at Cornell University and sociologist Doug Masseyfrom Princeton University to explore how different disciplines have approached the science of emotions.
There’s the evolutionary theory, the internal theory looking at the physiological and cognitive side, and also cultural and social factors that have an impact on how we understand feelings. But first they’ll have to pin down a useful definition of what an emotion actually is …
HD-Today e-Newsletter, Summer 2016 Issue
The Laboratory for Rational Decision Making (LRDM), led by Dr. Valerie Reyna in Human Development, welcomed 24 high school students from 18 different counties throughout New York State as part of a 3-day course in decision making research called, “Getting the Gist.” The high school students journeyed to Cornell University as part of the 4-H Career Explorations Conference that offers secondary school students the opportunity to attend courses and workshops and learn about STEM research.
The high school students became guest LRDM lab members and learned how to turn their questions about risky decision making into experiments. They created an experiment, collected and analyzed the data, and discussed the results. The student career explorers also toured the Center for Magnetic Resonance Imaging Facility and the EEG and Psychophysics Laboratory and saw how decision research uses brain imaging technologies to examine what brain areas are activated when making risky decisions.
Dr. Reyna’s graduate students' David Garavito, Alisha Meschkow and Rebecca Helm, and research staff member, Bertrand Reyna-Brainerd, presented lectures on Dr. Reyna’s fuzzy trace theory and research design and led interactive discussions with the visiting students about the paths that led the graduate students to the LRDM at Cornell. In addition, three undergraduate members of the lab, Tristan Ponzo (’18), Elana Molotsky (’17) and Joe DeTello (’19) delivered poster presentations of current lab research projects. Feedback from one of the career explorers expressed the gist of the program, “Yes, I definitely feel like I have a better understanding of why I make the decisions I do.”
|New book probes emotion, aging and health New approaches to understanding physical and psychological changes in old age – differences in personality, for instance, or responses to stressful events and the role of positive emotions in promoting well-being – are presented in a new book co-edited by Cornell human development professors Anthony Ong and Corinna Loeckenhoff.|
|Retweeting may overload your brain In a digital world where information is at your fingertips, be prepared to hold on tight before it slips right through them. Research at Cornell and Beijing University finds retweeting or otherwise sharing information creates a “cognitive overload” that interferes with learning and retaining what you’ve just seen.|
|Inside Cornell’s BABY Labs Steven S. Robertson and Marianella Casasola, professors in Human Development, run baby labs at Cornell. where researchers are discovering more about the nuances of infant development. It’s a crucial area of academic research and exploration, given the impact early development has on later stages of life.|
|Mapping the Resting-state Brain In the Department of Human Development, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) informs Nathan Spreng’s studies of large-scale brain network dynamics and their role in cognition.|
|Checking Up on the Science of Homosexuality A new systematic review and commentary published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest takes a sweeping look at what the evidence says about homosexuality and sexual orientation in general.|
Student in the News
|Side by side Many undergraduates in Human Development work side by side with faculty in the lab. Read about this transformative approach to learning in an interview with Annie Erickson '16 and her mentor, Professor Eve De Rosa.|
|Studies Suggest Multilingual Exposure Boosts Children's Communication Skills Listen to NPR's Robert Siegel's interview with Katherine Kinzler, associate professor of psychology and human development, about her research on the development of social skills in monolingual and multilingual children.|
|Professor Corinna Loeckenhoff talks about aging with Karl Pillemer, Director of the BCTR|
Republished from Cornell Chronicle, April 25, 2016
New approaches to understanding physical and psychological changes in old age – differences in personality, for instance, or responses to stressful events and the role of positive emotions in promoting well-being – are presented in a new book co-edited by Cornell human development professors Anthony Ongand Corinna Loeckenhoff.
“Emotion, Aging, and Health” presents selected concepts from the Fourth Biennial Urie Bronfenbrenner Conference on New Developments in Aging, Emotion and Health hosted on campus in 2013 by Loeckenhoff and Ong.
“We’re only beginning to understand the complex interplay between emotional experiences and physical health across the adult life span,” said Loeckenhoff. “One of the most important developments in recent years is this: We can finally draw connections between subjective emotional experience, patterns of brain activation, and biomarkers of chronic stress.”
Loeckenhoff said science has been “so focused on understanding emotion as a marker of mental health that we have overlooked its implications for physical health. Especially in later life, emotional responses can buffer the adverse effects of physical conditions; but they (emotional responses) can also be a risk factor for adverse health outcomes.”
Ong said the publication “provides a state-of-the art overview of methods and approaches associated with the study of emotional aging and health. The chapters, written by leading researchers in the field, discuss topics such as emotion regulation, cross-cultural research, healthy aging and interventions.” He hopes some of the questions raised will stimulate future investigation, and that the new volume will help students and scholars “gain a working understanding of research approaches and key issues at the intersection of emotion, aging and health.”
Conference presenters – mainly psychologists and experts in human development – came from an international cross-section of institutions: Cornell, Harvard, Northeastern and Stanford universities and the University of California, among others, as well as Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.
Previous topics for the conference-and-publication series honoring Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005), the longtime Cornell professor of human development and of psychology, included “Chaos and Its Influence on Children’s Development” and “The Neuroscience of Risky Decision Making.” A founder of the national Head Start program, Bronfenbrenner joined the Cornell faculty in 1948. The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR) in the College of Human Ecology honors his vision to join science and service.
Writing the volume’s foreword, gerontologist Karl Pillemer, Cornell’s Hazel E. Reed Professor of Human Development and BCTR director, imagines the book would please Bronfenbrenner. “As a translational researcher before the name existed, he would embrace the themes of development and plasticity in later life, the importance given to social and cultural factors in understanding emotions, and the commitment to applying these scientific insights in creating an optimal world in which to grow old.”
H. Roger Segelken is a freelance writer.
In a digital world where information is at your fingertips, be prepared to hold on tight before it slips right through them. Research at Cornell and Beijing University finds retweeting or otherwise sharing information creates a “cognitive overload” that interferes with learning and retaining what you’ve just seen.
Worse yet, that overload can spill over and diminish performance in the real world.
“Most people don’t post original ideas any more. You just share what you read with your friends,” said Qi Wang, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. “But they don’t realize that sharing has a downside. It may interfere with other things we do.”
Wang and colleagues in China conducted experiments showing that “retweeting” interfered with learning and memory, both online and off. The experiments are described in Issue 59 (2016) of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
The experiments were conducted at Beijing University, with a group of Chinese college students as subjects. At computers in a laboratory setting, two groups were presented with a series of messages from Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. After reading each message, members of one group had options either to repost or go on to the next message. The other group was given only the “next” option.
After finishing a series of messages, the students were given an online test on the content of those messages. Those in the repost group offered almost twice as many wrong answers and often demonstrated poor comprehension. What they did remember they often remembered poorly, Wang reported. “For things that they reposted, they remembered especially worse,” she added.
The researchers theorized that reposters were suffering from “cognitive overload.” When there is a choice to share or not share, the decision itself consumes cognitive resources, Wang explained.
This led to a second experiment: After viewing a series of Weibo messages, the students were given an unrelated paper test on their comprehension of a New Scientist article. Again, participants in the no-feedback group outperformed the reposters. Subjects also completed a Workload Profile Index, in which they were asked to rate the cognitive demands of the message-viewing task. The results confirmed a higher cognitive drain for the repost group.
“[The sharing] leads to cognitive overload, and that interferes with the subsequent task,” Wang said. “In real life when students are surfing online and exchanging information and right after that they go to take a test, they may perform worse,” she suggested.
Noting that other research has shown people often pay more attention to elements of a web design such as “repost” or “like” than to the content, the researchers suggest that web interfaces should be designed to promote rather than interfere with cognitive processing. “Online design should be simple and task-relevant,” Wang concluded.
The research was supported by the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation.
An 18-month-old boy sits on his father’s lap in a small room furnished with a child-sized chair and a short table. The boy faces a monitor. On it, a video starts to play. A woman, Psychology graduate student Kate Brunick, assembles a simple toy—she holds two bright green cups, places a plastic object inside one, brings the cups together, and closes them to form a capsule. She shakes it; it’s a makeshift rattle.
As the boy watches the video, Michael H. Goldstein, Psychology, and his graduate students observe from the B.A.B.Y. (Behavioral Analysis of Beginning Years) lab’s observation room, a space hidden behind one-way glass and filled with monitors and video controls. Once the recording is done, Psychology graduate student Melissa Elston heads into the room where the boy and father sit. She’s carrying the toy from the video clip and places it on top of the table in front of the boy.
The boy doesn’t budge. After a couple minutes of encouragement from Elston, it’s clear he’s not assembling a rattle on this visit. It’s not a failure. This is exactly what Goldstein expects.
The study is just one of the many taking place at Cornell’s infant labs, where researchers are discovering more about the nuances of infant development. It’s a crucial area of academic research and exploration, given the impact early development has on later stages of life.
How Babies Learn in Social Settings
This particular study is on a phenomenon called the "video deficit effect," in which babies from 12 to 30 months are much worse at learning from video presentations than from real-life experiences. The group studies the babies in three scenarios: one in which babies see a live presentation of putting the toy together, another with an automatic pre-recorded video, and a third in which the baby has to press a button in order to play the pre-recorded video. Their theory is that the first group will learn, the second won’t, and the third will because the experience is contingent on and immediately follows their own action.
The study falls under the lab’s research on how babies learn in social context. Most of the work Goldstein and his codirector, Jennifer Schwade, do is on how social interactions affect the acquisition of speech and language in both babies and songbirds (in their case, song). Contingency, they’ve found, is crucial to learning.
Goldstein argues that the social behavior of adults contains patterns that can guide young learners. “If you want to understand how infants learn, you’ve got to understand not only what’s in the baby’s head but what social environment the baby’s head is in,” he says.
If, when you think of an infant lab, you imagine a baby outfitted with sensors, you’re on the right track when it comes to Robertson’s research. He examines mind–body relations in very young babies, typically three-month-olds. Specifically, he looks at the relationships between vision, motor activity, and attention during visual foraging, a major way in which infants gather information from their surroundings.
“If you want to understand how infants learn, you’ve got to understand not only what’s in the baby’s head but what social environment the baby’s head is in,” Goldstein says.
To study the dynamics of visual foraging, Robertson depends on EEG measurements and a few flashing rubber ducks. When a baby arrives at the lab, she is placed in a high chair in front of three yellow rubber ducks. The ducks are outfitted with LED lights and attached to motor-controlled rods that can move them right and left. Atop the baby’s head is an EEG cap. It measures the oscillations in the activity of visual neurons. Each duck’s light flashes at a different frequency and the baby’s oscillations in neural activity will match the frequency of the duck receiving her attention.
Through these measurements, Robertson knows when a baby is paying attention to a certain duck. A video camera records the baby, so they can see how her eyes move in relation to that attention. What Robertson found and reported in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 is that attention is not always directly correlated to gaze. In fact, babies redirect their attention to a new duck ahead of actually looking at it. What’s more surprising is that a second or two before shifting to the new duck, babies actually paid more attention to the duck they didn’t choose to look at.
Robertson sees this behavior as consistent with the inhibition of return (IOR) observed in adults. In IOR, attention is suppressed toward previously inspected areas or objects in favor of new locations or objects. It would make sense for a baby to look at, and focus attention toward, a duck that it had not been paying attention to earlier.
Robertson is currently conducting further studies to test whether the behavior in infants truly is the development of IOR. “The adaptive value of this in visual exploration is that it keeps you from going to the same spot,” Robertson says. “You get to literally explore new locations in your environment and pick up new information.” And he adds that it’s especially important to study in infants because “the nature of visual input during this period has important consequences for the structural and functional development of the brain,” which happens quickly in early infancy.
Casasola agrees that looking at babies is crucial for tracing how certain skills develop. One of her main interests is in understanding the link between spatial cognition and the acquisition of spatial language—language relating to space, location, and shapes.
Spatial awareness is a core cognitive ability. It is linked to achievement in math and sciences and has broader implications for everyday life. For example, spatial cognition relates to our ability to navigate, to project how objects will look from different angles, and even to reading orientation. Casasola wants to understand how these skills develop, but she also aims to figure out how they relate to acquisition of spatial language and what sorts of experiences promote spatial skills.
For this area of research, Casasola studies a wide age range, from babies at 14 months up to toddlers at 4.5 years old. The studies vary from age to age. For example, younger babies watch a computer animation of two halves of a shape—say, a heart—on either side of a curtain. The two halves move together and then disappear behind the curtain. The curtain then lifts and shows the whole heart. Or, it could show a completely different shape, like a square. Casasola relies on infant looking time to determine how they perceive these expected and unexpected shapes.
Older children are asked to put halves of foam shapes together. Casasola has also done naturalistic studies, during which researchers play with kids using spatial toys—puzzles, origami, and Legos. One group receives a lot of spatial language: “Fold the paper horizontally, you’ve made a triangle.” The other group receives general language, like “do this, now fold it like this, look what you’ve made.” What Casasola’s research found is that children with more exposure to spatial language are much better at naming shapes. The more spatial language a child acquires, the better they are at accomplishing nonverbal spatial tasks. Throughout the studies of spatial learning, Casasola wants to determine at what ages significant advances can be made.
“No one has looked at trajectory, which is important,” she says. “It can answer questions like, how stable are spatial skills? It can also highlight when might be ultimate time periods to promote it.” Knowing this will be useful for effective interventions that nurture better spatial cognition to help babies and children develop better spatial cognition abilities.
Using the Research
Goldstein is already on his way to applying his research findings to real-world intervention. Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research has recently funded the B.A.B.Y. Lab’s pilot intervention program to aid infant language development in low socioeconomic status families.
In previous research, the lab found that the timing and the form of reactions to infant babbling are crucial for language development. For example, if a baby is babbling at a toy, it’s important to respond immediately and to engage with that toy. The baby then sees there’s a reward to vocalizing and takes the next learning step.
The work done in the infant labs has a direct public impact. “Outreach is the real key,” Goldstein says. “We’re doing work that should improve the lives of parents and infants.”
Reprinted from Human Ecology Magazine, Spring 2016
A Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow, Spreng is curious about how volunteer test subjects in his Laboratory of Brain and Cognition conceive of the future and how they navigate the social world. Then there’s the hypothesized link between thinking about the past and imagining the future. “These different cognitive tasks activate similar brain regions,” Spreng
explains. “But it’s actually the other regions they talk to that help determine whether we’re thinking about the past or the future.”
It’s not only when the brain is doing something—performing cognitive tasks—that’s interesting to Spreng. Neuroscientists also study brain activity while people are simply resting in the scanner. But do our brains ever truly “rest”?
Not according to Spreng: “Signaling is always going on up there. Understanding how different brain regions hum along together (or are connected functionally) while people are simply resting can tell us a lot about how their brains work during cognitive tasks, and might eventually help us predict how resilient they will be to aging or brain disease.”
Spreng believes there’s even more in the resting-state fMRI data than previously imagined. In collaboration with Peter Doerschuk, professor of biomedical engineering, Spreng is developing a new method for analyzing resting-state activity. Doerschuk, also a Harvard-educated medical doctor, excels at developing algorithms for high-performance software systems.
In published reports of their progress so far, Spreng and Doerschuk say they’re finding ways to add important new details to the map of the resting brain— details like causality and direction of information flow between regions. Cause
and signaling direction are important considerations, Spreng notes, “when characterizing exactly how that network operates, and how information flows through the system, and how it might be involved in cognitive functions.”
The Cornell collaborators say their new statistical method shows promise in tracking both causation and direction of neural signals, showing us that the resting brain is anything but.
Reprinted from Evidence-based Living, a project of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research.
Diversity in sexual orientation—whether gay, straight, bisexual, or somewhere in between—has sparked long-standing controversies across the globe. In the United States, recent debates have centered around the civil rights for same-sex couples. In many other countries, homosexuality is considered illegal; in some, it’s punishable by death.
Often, these social and political debates refer to the “science of homosexuality” —or what we really know about why individuals are attracted to particular sexes. If you’ve followed these debates, you’ve likely heard people refer to the idea that homosexuality is genetic, or that it is a choice people make. But what does science really tell us about sexual orientation?
A new systematic review and commentary published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest takes a sweeping look at what the evidence says about homosexuality and sexual orientation in general. While the articles draw some conclusions about the causes and connections that lead to different sexual orientations, they also point out what we don’t know about homosexuality.
Here’s what we do know:
- Across research papers, somewhere between 2 and 11 percent on people report experiencing same-sex attractions. The exact number varies depending on how the question is asked and how the research paper categorizes homosexuality.
- Children who do not conform to gender identities—for example, boys who wear dresses or girls who act as “tomboys”—are more likely to identify as not heterosexual later in life. This applies to cultures across the globe, no matter what their gender roles.
- Political attitudes about sexual orientation are connected to people’s understanding of the causes of same-sex behavior. People who believe that homosexuality is immoral tend to believe that sexuality is a choice or is influenced by social factors. Those who support free expression of sexuality tend to believe there are biological factors that influence sexual orientation.
In a commentary published with the systematic review, Cornell Human Development Professor Ritch Savin-Williams offers evidence of a continuum of sexual orientation that includes a wide variety of classifications, including people who are “mostly straight” with a small degree of same-sex attraction or people who are “mostly gay or lesbian” with some attraction to opposite-sex partners. Taking into account these groups, the prevalence of people experiencing at least some same-sex feelings may be much broader than is represented in many studies.
“Traditionally, we’ve thought of sexual orientation in terms of three categories: you are or identify as straight, bisexual, or gay/lesbian,” he explained. “But recent research from a different perspective strongly suggests that this view mischaracterizes a significant number of people who have varying degrees of opposite-sex and same-sex romantic and sexual attractions and the ratio might well vary across contexts and time. That is, rather than categories there is a spectrum of sexualities and the in between points along a continuum constitute perhaps a quarter of all individuals, especially if you consider their infatuations, crushes and romantic feelings. Recognizing this reality has the potential to subvert any us-versus-them perspective, thus promoting the sexual and romantic commonality we have with each other.”
What the data do not tell us definitively is the why people have different sexual orientations. But there is evidence that there are multiple contributing factors, some of which we don’t yet understand.
The most scientifically plausible theories, according to the review, propose that sexual orientation is a product of biology and social factors, to varying degrees for different people.
For example, there is credible evidence across cultures that, for men, their birth order has some effect on their sexual orientation. Men with more older brothers are significantly more likely to identify as gay compared with first-born sons or men with older sisters. This is likely related to evidence that prenatal hormones affect the sexual orientation of boys. There is also clear evidence that specific genetic profiles contribute to sexual orientation, but likely interact with other factors.
What’s the take-home message here? There is a lot we don’t yet understand about how individuals develop their gender identity and sexual orientation. But it is absolutely clear that there are a wide variety of factors—both biological and social—that play into each person’s sexual identity.
Republished from Human Ecology Magazine, Spring 2016
Annie Erickson & Eve De Rosa
What does your lab study?
Annie Erickson ’16: Our lab is interested in studying the neural basis of cognitive processes such as attention, learning, and memory. To investigate these complex neural mechanisms, we use a cross-species approach studying both human and animals. We are interested in the neurochemicals that modulate cognition— specifically, a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. My project focuses on the effect of acute and chronic caffeine intake on cognition in rats, testing whether caffeine can rescue cognitive deficits that have been induced by blocking acetylcholine.
Why study caffeine?
Eve De Rosa, Associate Professor of Human Development and Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Fellow: We all drink coffee, but we don’t always give deep thought to how it affects attention, learning, and memory. That’s why I love the real-world importance of Annie’s honors thesis question. She’s finding cognitive tasks that both rats and humans can perform so that we can translate the basic science experiments in the lab to our understanding of human cognition.
What do you like about this work?
Erickson: After following this project from conception to experimental setup to final execution, it’ll be incredibly exciting to see the results. It’s been inspiring to work with Eve, and to see the way she’s able to balance research, teaching, and family. She’s so enthusiastic and positive, and I really enjoy discussing my ideas with her, because she’s always so encouraging.
De Rosa: I love mentoring students like Annie! After participating in the lab as an undergrad research assistant, she approached me with this wonderful question about looking at caffeine’s ability to boost cognition, and whether it was caffeine’s interaction with acetylcholine that underlies this ability.
The fact that caffeine is a cognitive enhancer is something I was already aware of, but not that it might be important in slowing the decline of pathological cognitive aging, like in Alzheimer’s disease. When Annie brought that idea to me, I could see why it might be worth taking a chance to pursue the question.
What’s the risk?
De Rosa: Rat neuroscience is expensive, and it’s not my primary research focus. I’m very interested in acetylcholine, which declines during normal aging, and in using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to assess brain activity. But Annie’s research is something I would never have pursued on my own. And now I’m having so much fun reading the literature, thinking about how it relates to my larger research vision.
Erickson: Through the process of developing my independent project, Eve has provided crucial advice while also being incredibly flexible in letting me explore different ideas. She’s shown how important collaboration is for successful research and I’ve learned so much about thinking and writing scientifically—skills that are fundamental to a future in research.
In 2015, Annie Erickson received the Human Ecology Undergraduate Summer Research Stipend, and is currently working toward an honors thesis funded by the Human Ecology Alumni Association.