Tag Archives: emotions

By H. Roger Segelken
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 2, 2014

Envisioning an increasingly diverse America – the Census Bureau predicts ethnic minorities, combined, will constitute the majority of the U.S. population by 2050 – causes anxiety for a lot of white people.

Except, that is, whites with a defined “purpose in life,” a Cornell-Carleton University psychology study has found.

“People with a greater sense of purpose are not as bothered by projections of increasing racial and ethnic diversity,” says Anthony L. Burrow, assistant professor of developmental psychology in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.

With graduate students Rachel Sumner and Maclen Stanley ’14 and Patrick L. Hill, a psychologist at Ottawa’s Carleton University, Burrow published findings in the September 2014 online journal, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, titled “Purpose in Life as a Resource for Increasing Comfort with Ethnic Diversity.” The latest study builds on 2012 experiments by Burrow and Hill, showing that white passengers on Chicago Metro trains are more comfortable when outnumbered by persons of color if they have a sense of purpose.

‘We shall persevere’
Citing previous studies by other researchers, the Cornell authors define “purpose in life” as follows: • A self-organizing life aim that organizes and stimulates goals, manages behaviors and provides a sense of meaning. • An indicator of psychological well-being, physical health and longevity. • Purpose is thought to contribute to well-being by providing a guiding framework for actualizing life goals within a larger social system. • Purposeful individuals are oriented toward connecting with the broader world around them. • Purpose includes an intent to persevere until one’s goals are brought to fruition. • A greater sense of purpose may help individuals conceptualize what it takes to thrive in the context of a more inclusive and diverse future.

The researchers recruited 205 white volunteers through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey tool. Sense of purpose was gauged by asking participants whether they agreed with statements like “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them” and “I am an active person in carrying out the plans I have set for myself.” And by asking online volunteers, who were paid 50 cents apiece for taking the survey, to put their thoughts in writing.

“We also tried to determine whether whites prefer to live in ethnically homogeneous cities or ethnically diverse places,” Sumner says. “Not surprisingly, most whites said they’re more comfortable living amongst other white people.”

“Except when we asked, before hand, that they write briefly about their purpose in life,” Stanley notes. “After articulating sense of purpose, many white participants in the online experiment were significantly more likely to prefer the more diverse city.”

Says Burrow: “The year 2050 might be distant for older adults, but our children are already getting a preview of an increasingly diverse America. The start of classes this month [September 2014] marks the first time in our history that white children are not the majority in U.S. elementary and secondary schools.”

With the erosion of majority status, Burrow says, “there may be a tendency for individuals to perceive diversity as threatening. For some whites, increasing diversity could mean the demise of their social influence, their values and their place in the world. Even imagining a more ethnically heterogeneous future society increases whites’ fear of and anger toward ethnic minorities.”

The authors venture that a sense of purpose “may go beyond improving attitudes toward diversity and may even influence decisions and behaviors. … A sense of purpose may alleviate motivations for self-segregation that might otherwise prevail.”

Anything that bolsters individuals’ psychological resources – anything that emphasizes a sense of value and self-persistence – “may increase comfort with ethnic diversity by diminishing perceptions of threat associated with it,” the authors believe.

Their findings, they say, “may have implications beyond that of major life choices, such as where people choose to reside, and might also influence the types of diversity-related decisions people make in everyday life, including which co-workers to befriend or simply where to sit on the subway.”

The online survey and analyses of results were supported, in part, by internal funds from the College of Human Ecology.

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By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, July 9, 2014

 An illustration of the brain turns feelings and perceptions into a similar code. The color/object gradient represents valence (blue is bad, red is good) - Adam Anderson, Junichi Chikazoe

An illustration of the brain turns feelings and perceptions into a similar code. The color/object gradient represents valence (blue is bad, red is good) - Adam Anderson, Junichi Chikazoe

Although feelings are personal and subjective, the human brain turns them into a standard code that objectively represents emotions across different senses, situations and even people, reports a new study by Cornell neuroscientist Adam Anderson.

“We discovered that fine-grained patterns of neural activity within the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with emotional processing, act as a neural code which captures an individual’s subjective feeling,” says Anderson, associate professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and senior author of the study, “Population coding of affect across stimuli, modalities and individuals,” published online June 22 in Nature Neuroscience.

Their findings provide insight into how the brain represents our innermost feelings – what Anderson calls the last frontier of neuroscience – and upend the long-held view that emotion is represented in the brain simply by activation in specialized regions for positive or negative feelings, he says.

“If you and I derive similar pleasure from sipping a fine wine or watching the sun set, our results suggest it is because we share similar fine-grained patterns of activity in the orbitofrontal cortex,” Anderson says.

“It appears that the human brain generates a special code for the entire valence spectrum of pleasant-to-unpleasant, good-to-bad feelings, which can be read like a ‘neural valence meter’ in which the leaning of a population of neurons in one direction equals positive feeling and the leaning in the other direction equals negative feeling,” Anderson explains.

For the study, the researchers presented 16 participants with a series of pictures and tastes during functional neuroimaging, then analyzed participants’ ratings of their subjective experiences along with their brain activation patterns. To crack the brain’s emotional code and understand how external events come to be represented in the brain as internal feelings, the researchers used a neuroimaging approach called representational similarity analysis to analyze spatial patterns of brain activity across populations of neurons rather than the traditional approach of assessing activation magnitude in specialized regions.

Anderson’s team found that valence was represented as sensory-specific patterns or codes in areas of the brain associated with vision and taste, as well as sensory-independent codes in the orbitofrontal cortices (OFC), suggesting, the authors say, that representation of our internal subjective experience is not confined to specialized emotional centers, but may be central to perception of sensory experience.

They also discovered that similar subjective feelings – whether evoked from the eye or tongue – resulted in a similar pattern of activity in the OFC, suggesting the brain contains an emotion code common across distinct experiences of pleasure (or displeasure), they say. Furthermore, these OFC activity patterns of positive and negative experiences were partly shared across people.

“Despite how personal our feelings feel, the evidence suggests our brains use a standard code to speak the same emotional language,” Anderson concludes.

The study was funded in part by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and was co-authored by Junichi Chikazoe, postdoctoral associate in human development at Cornell; Daniel H. Lee, University of Toronto; and Nikolaus Kriegeskorte, University of Cambridge.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

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Why do our eyes open wide when we feel fear or narrow to slits when we express disgust? According to new research, it has to do with survival.

Cornell neuroscientist Adam Anderson and colleagues concluded that expressions of fear and disgust altered the way human eyes gather and focus light.

They argued that these changes were the result of evolutionary development and were intended to help humans survive, or at least detect, very different threats. Read more

By Ted Boscia
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, March 20, 2014

Why do we become saucer-eyed when afraid and taper our eyelids to slits when disgusted?


These near-opposite facial expressions are rooted in emotional responses that exploit how our eyes gather and focus light to detect an unknown threat, found a study by a Cornell neuroscientist. In fear, our eyes widen, boosting sensitivity and expanding our field of vision to locate surrounding danger. When repulsed, our eyes narrow, blocking light to sharpen focus and pinpoint the source of our disgust.

The findings by Adam Anderson, associate professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, suggest that human facial expressions arose from universal, adaptive reactions to environmental stimuli and not originally as social communication signals, lending support to Charles Darwin’s 19th-century theories on the evolution of emotion.

“These opposing functions of eye widening and narrowing, which mirror that of pupil dilation and constriction, might be the primitive origins for the expressive capacity of the face,” Anderson said. “And these actions are not likely restricted to disgust and fear, as we know that these movements play a large part in how, perhaps, all expressions differ, including surprise, anger and even happiness.”

 These are modeled expressions for fear, disgust and average (average of all expressions, so it's not technically "neutral"). - provided

These are modeled expressions for fear, disgust and average (average of all expressions, so it's not technically "neutral"). - provided

Anderson and co-authors described these ideas in the paper, “Optical Origins of Opposing Facial Expression Actions,” published in the March issue of Psychological Science.

For the experiment, Anderson, with collaborators at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo, used standard optometric measures to gauge how light reached the retina as study participants made fearful, disgusted and neutral expressions. Looks of disgust resulted in the greatest visual acuity – less light and better focus; fearful expressions induced maximum sensitivity – more light and a broader visual field.

“These emotions trigger facial expressions that are very far apart structurally, one with eyes wide open and the other with eyes pinched,” said Anderson, the paper’s senior author. “The reason for that is to allow the eye to harness the properties of light that are most useful in these situations.”

What’s more, the paper notes, emotions filter our reality, shaping what we see before light ever reaches the inner eye.

“We tend to think of perception as something that happens after an image is received by the brain,” Anderson said. “But, in fact, emotions influence vision at the very earliest moments of visual encoding.”

Essentially, our eyes are miniature cameras, constructed millennia before humans understood optics, said lead author Daniel Lee, Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto, where Anderson previously taught.

“As automatic actions accompanying our emotions, it means that Mother Nature had solved and programmed within us this fundamental optical principle,” Lee added.

Anderson’s Affect and Cognition Laboratory is now studying how these contrasting eye movements may account for how facial expressions have developed to support nonverbal communication across cultures.

“We are seeking to understand how these expressions have come to communicate emotions to others,” he said. “We know that the eyes can be a powerful basis for reading what people are thinking and feeling, and we might have a partial answer to why that is.”

Ted Boscia is director of communications and media for the College of Human Ecology.

Related Information

By H. Roger Segelken
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle October 30, 2013
Anderson 110x150

Anderson

Some people are genetically predisposed to see the world darkly, according to a study from the laboratory of a researcher now on the faculty of Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.

Adam K. Anderson, associate professor of human development, is continuing his research on emotions, genetics and perception, which began at his laboratory at the University of Toronto in collaboration with scientists at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Their study, published in September in Psychological Science, found a previously known gene variant causing some individuals to perceive emotional events – especially negative ones – more acutely than others.

“This genetic variation contributes to how emotions bias individuals to see the same world in different ways,” says Anderson. “More than just how we may later remember, these findings suggest genetics influence how our brains pick and choose which events to perceive in the first place.”

The gene in question is the ADRA2b deletion variant, which influences the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Previously found to play a role in the formation of emotional memories, the new study shows that the ADRA2b deletion variant also plays a role in real-time perception.

Some 200 study participants were shown positive, negative and neutral words in a rapid succession, each at 1/10th of a second. While all individuals perceived positive words better than neutral words, participants with the ADRA2b gene variant were more likely to perceive negative words than others.

“These individuals may be more likely to pick out angry faces in a crowd of people,” says Rebecca M. Todd of UBC’s Department of Psychology. “Outdoors, they might notice potential hazards – places you could slip, loose rocks that might fall – instead of seeing the natural beauty.”

The findings shed new light on ways in which genetics – combined with other factors such as education, culture and moods – can affect individual differences in emotional perception and human subjectivity, the researchers say.

Future work on this topic in Anderson’s laboratory intends to examine whether individuals with these very same genetic variants, depending on their environment and stage of development, can be coaxed to enhance perception of the positive rather than the negative.

The study, “Genes for Emotion-Enhanced Remembering Are Linked to Enhanced Perceiving,” was funded in part by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 15, 2013

Jeanne Tsai, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University, speaks at the 2013 Biennial Urie Bronfenbrenner Conference - Jason Koski/University Photography

Recent scientific advances demonstrate the profound effects of emotion on physical health, even how long we live and what diseases we die from. Likewise, there is growing evidence for the effects of aging on our emotions. Both streams of research shed light on root causes of disease and pathways to lifelong health, which is why researchers gathered on campus Oct. 3-4 to better understand the interplay between emotions and health across the lifespan.

The Fourth Biennial Urie Bronfenbrenner Conference, “New Developments in Aging, Emotion and Health,” drew scholars from as far away as Europe to share research on the nature of age differences in emotions, how emotions influence health, the underlying biological and behavioral mechanisms, and possibilities for leveraging these discoveries to promote healthy aging.

“We convened a temporary think tank of long-standing and rising leaders in the two fields to create some unlikely encounters and novel ideas,” said Corinna Loeckenhoff, assistant professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and director of the Cornell Healthy Aging Laboratory. “We expect the intellectual exchange and networking will lead to new conceptual developments as well as policy and translation opportunities with real-world implications,” she said. Loeckenhoff co-organized the conference with Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development.

Many of those who participated are pioneers in their fields. Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology and the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, for example, is best known for her theory about how people’s motivations change as they age. She reviewed her recent research on leveraging older adults’ preference for the positive to improve health behaviors. Positive messages about the benefits of exercise, it turns out, are more effective than negative messages about risks of inactivity in motivating older adults to walk regularly. Such insights could revolutionize efforts to help America’s growing population of older adults remain active, she said.

Cornell neuroscientist Adam Anderson, associate professor of human development, said that his research suggests that positive emotions are associated with increased cognitive flexibility and creative problem solving, and this may be due to neural changes that impair selective attention. The aging brain, he says, exhibits this same “leaky filter” pattern. More information can slow down thinking, but there’s an upside as well, he proposed – the rose colored glasses of positivity broaden our field of view and help us see remote connections.

Alex Zautra of Arizona State University, who studies resilience and interventions that help people bounce back from stressors and adversity, shared his recent research on the crucial role of social ties in “unlocking” resilience and his initiative to develop online social intelligence training to help people build and maintain social ties.

Participants (who included other renowned scholars such as George Bonanno, Columbia University; Michaela Riediger, the Max Plank Institute for Human Development; and Laura Kubzansky, Harvard School of Public Health) also debated core assumptions about emotional regulation and personality, the effects of culture, environment and technology, and their implications for policy and practice.

The American Psychological Association plans to publish a book based on the papers presented at the conference, which was sponsored by Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, Institute for the Social Sciences and Department of Human Development; the Scientific Research Network on Decision Neuroscience and Aging; Constance F. Ferris; and Liese Bronfenbrenner.

Conference videos

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Ted Boscia
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, September 3, 2013

Burrow

Burrow

Being in the minority in an ethnically diverse crowd is distressing, regardless of your ethnicity, unless you have a sense of purpose in life, reports a Cornell developmental psychologist.

Anthony Burrow, assistant professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, led the study, which was conducted on Chicago trains. The findings shed light on how people encounter diversity in everyday settings at a time when the United States is more racially mixed than ever, with demographic trends pointing to a more multicultural melting pot in decades to come.

In two experiments, college students reported their mood as they rode a train from Chicago’s North Side toward the city center for 14 consecutive stops, while Burrow’s team privately recorded naturally occurring changes to the overall ethnic and gender makeup of the car’s passengers during the trip. For the first study, all 111 participants filled out a short questionnaire to assess their life purpose prior to boarding. In the second study, before riding, half of the 116 participants completed a 10-minute writing exercise about life purpose, while the others responded to a question about movies.

Participants’ negative mood heightened as the ratio of people from different ethnic backgrounds aboard the train increased, regardless of their own race and after controlling for various factors, such as an individual’s personality, familiarity with metro trains and perceived safety of the surrounding neighborhoods. In both studies, however, those who had a sense of purpose or had written about their life aims did not experience the worsened mood associated with riding among a diverse crowd.

“This research is among the first to show negative reactivity to diversity occurs dynamically within people, and not just between them,” Burrow said. “That is, it is not simply that people who reside in more ethnically diverse communities experience greater distress than those living in less ethnically diverse communities, as suggested by past studies. Now we can see that when a person is in a more ethnically diverse setting, they feel more distressed than when they are in less ethnically diverse settings.”

But the negative feelings vanished in purpose-driven individuals. Burrow, whose research focuses on the value of purpose, particularly among teens and young adults, suspects that it enabled participants to look beyond themselves to appreciate their role in the world and to build the psychological resilience necessary to overcome adversity.

“There is evidence that focusing on personally meaningful and valued goals can buffer the negative effects of stress by allowing individuals to reinforce a sense of who they are,” he said. “This suggests that creating opportunities for individuals to cultivate a sense of purpose is important as we move forward as a society.”

Burrow warned that the study should not be misread as rejecting multiculturalism, even if diversity can be distressing for people.

“Neither previous research nor our interpretation of the current findings suggest that diversity is inherently problematic,” Burrow said. “In fact, there are many reasons to believe ethnically diverse friendships, classrooms and workplaces are optimal for high-quality outcomes.”

The study, “Derailed by Diversity?: Purpose Buffers the Relationship Between Ethnic Composition on Trains and Passenger Negative Mood,” was published online Aug. 27 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and was co-authored by Patrick Hill of Carleton University.

Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle April 26, 2013

Anthony Ong

Ong

Want a good night’s sleep? Be positive – consistently. Although happiness is generally good for sleeping, when a person’s happiness varies a lot in reaction to daily ups and downs, sleep suffers, reports a Cornell study published online in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

The researchers analyzed data from 100 middle-aged participants in a longitudinal study of midlife in the United States that included telephone interviews about participants’ daily experience as well as subjective and objective measures of sleeping habits. The study looked at the overall levels of positive emotion that the participants experienced in their lives – those associated with more stable personality traits, as well as daily fluctuations in positive emotions in reaction to daily events.

The team found that, as expected, having a more positive general outlook on life was associated with improved sleep quality. However, they found that the more reactive or fragile a participant’s positive emotions were in relation to external events, the more their sleep was impaired, especially for individuals high in positivity to begin with.

“Previous research suggests that the experience of joy and happiness may slow down the effects of aging by fortifying health-enhancing behaviors such as restorative sleep,” said first author Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. “Our study extends this research by showing that whereas possessing relatively stable high levels of positive emotion may be conducive to improved sleep, unstable highly positive feelings may be associated with poor sleep because such emotions are subject to the vicissitudes of daily influences.” Ong added, “These findings are novel because they point to the complex dynamics associated with fragile happiness and sleep that until now have been largely attributed to unhappy people.”

Ong co-authored the study, “Linking stable and dynamic features of positive affect to sleep,” with Deinera Exner-Cortens and Catherine Riffin, Cornell graduate students; Andrew Steptoe, University of London; Alex Zautra, Arizona State University; and David Almeida, Penn State University.

The research was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, February 12, 2013

Selcuk

Anthony Ong

Ong

People who receive high levels of emotional support from their partner have an increased risk of death if they perceive their partner as not caring, understanding and validating, reports a Cornell study published in Health Psychology (Vol. 32:2) this month.

The study found this paradoxical association disappeared completely for individuals who perceive their partner as responsive to their needs, suggesting that the effect of emotional support depends on the perceptions of the recipient rather than the amount of actual support provided.

"Intuitively, one would expect that receiving emotional support would be associated with better health outcomes, but prior research shows this is not always the case -- in fact, it is frequently associated with worse health outcomes," said first author Emre Selcuk, a graduate student in the field of human development. He conducted the study with Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology.

"To our knowledge, this is the first study to document the conditions under which received emotional support increases mortality risk," said Selcuk.

To better understand the health consequences of received support, the authors analyzed data from a national sample of more than 1,800 married or cohabitating adults in midlife in the United States who completed a 1995-96 survey that included measures of received support, perceived partner responsiveness and physical health status. Of the original group, 102 were identified as deceased allowing the authors to analyze mortality risk. After controlling for health status, health behaviors, personality traits and demographic factors, they found perceived partner responsiveness was responsible for the link between mortality and received support, thus shedding light on the mixed effects of emotional support in prior research.

The well-intentioned provision of support may backfire and lead to worse outcomes when the supportive behavior doesn't match the needs of the recipient or if it threatens the recipient's sense of self-efficacy and independence, the authors say.

"The received support may ultimately be harmful if the recipient thinks 'he does not understand me, this is not what I need,' 'her support does not solve my problem' or 'she is trying to provide support because she thinks I am not capable,'" Ong said.

"Our findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that people's attempts to provide social support are most likely to be health promoting when such support is perceived as responsive to the needs of the recipient," Ong added. "Conversely, support that is not quite paired with compassion is likely to be perceived as incomplete and full of risks. Over time, such perceptions can have big trade-offs for our health and well-being."

"Future research should test the effect of perceived partner responsiveness on other physical health indicators, mental health outcomes and relationship quality," said Selcuk. "If similar results are obtained, this body of work may have therapy implications for improving individuals' health and relationship well-being."

The researchers did not use any outside funding to conduct their study.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.