Tag Archives: Daniel Casasanto

Daniel Casasanto

Daniel Casasanto is Director of the Experience and Cognition Lab in the Department of Human Development. The focus of his research is how does our experience, specifically, our cultural, linguistic, and bodily experiences, affect how we think, feel, and make decisions. In a 2016 interview with Atlantic magazine, Casasanto discusses how hand preference can have a profound influence on our motivations and decisions. Three of his graduate students--Emma Murrugarra, Amritpal Singh, and Ché Lucero--reflect on what led them to work with Dr. Casasanto and enroll in the Department of Human Development Graduate Program.


EMMA MURRUGARRA

Emma Murrugarra

Can you tell me a little about your background and why you chose the graduate study program in Human Development program at Cornell?

I graduated from the University of Kansas with Bachelor's degrees in Human Biology, Psychology, and Philosophy. I came directly to Cornell to work with Dr. Daniel Casasanto's Experience and Cognition Lab. I was drawn by both the lab and department philosophy of studying cognition in the broader context of human development (e.g., physical, cultural, biological, etc.).

What research projects have you been involved with during your time here at Cornell?

Since coming to Cornell, I have been involved in projects looking at mental metaphors, specifically how we think about the relationship between time and space. Additionally, I have been investigating potential hormonal influences on the differences in abstract reasoning we find between eastern and western cultures.


AMRITPAL SINGH

Amritpal Singh

Can you tell me a little about your background and why you chose the graduate study program in Human Development program at Cornell?

I graduated from St. John's College, Annapolis, having completed a Great Books program there. I came to the Human Development program to work in the Experience and Cognition Lab because I wanted to study how mind and brain change and develop as a result of the interactions between them and their environments.

What research projects have you been involved with during your time here at Cornell?

One line of research I'm engaged in investigates how the way in which we use our bodies influences the neural organization of emotion. Another line of research I'm a part of investigates how abstract thinking can vary across different cultural contexts.


CHÉ LUCERO

Ché Lucero

Can you tell me a little about your background and why you chose the graduate study program in Human Development program at Cornell?

I completed my first few years of doctoral work at The University of Chicago. My advisor there, Prof. Casasanto, accepted a position at Cornell in Human Development. I decided to transfer to Cornell to complete my work. UChicago is wonderful and I had the option of completing my doctorate there, but I was lured by the integrative, cross-disciplinary aspect of the Human Development department here at Cornell and decided to make the leap.

What research projects have you been involved with during your time here at Cornell?

My research at Cornell has focused on how the human brain can rapidly approximate numerical quantities. To get a sense of what I mean, imagine if I gave you just one second to glance at a table that had nine oranges and sixteen apples sitting on it. You wouldn't have the time you'd need to count them, but you'd know that there were more apples than oranges anyway! If I then asked you to guess exactly how many apples and how many oranges there were, your answer for each might be off by a small amount, but you'd be very unlikely to make a huge error (e.g. you wouldn't guess twenty-five oranges). You were able to get an approximate sense of the number of fruit very quickly, and without resorting to counting!

Well, that's neat! But, how does the brain do that? Decades of research in humans and primates (who also have number approximation abilities) have pointed to one particular part of the brain as being critical for approximating quantities; the intraparietal sulcus. The intraparietal sulcus is considered to be a relatively "high level" area of the brain because it receives and integrates input from many other areas, including from multiple "lower level" areas that are heavily involved in processing the senses (i.e. audition, vision, etc.) The best understanding has been that the intraparietal sulcus computes approximate number on the basis of sensory information that was fed up to it by the "lower level" sensory areas.

The projects I'm involved in have been testing a relatively new idea, that the visual system (occipital cortex) might treat numerosity as a visual feature, similarly to how it processes features like contrast, color, or edges. We have been using neuroimaging techniques like electroencephalography (EEG) to observe subject's brain activity while we show them scenes containing varying numbers of objects very briefly (thirty scenes per second!). Our initial experiments have provided strong evidence that the visual cortex is itself approximating number without input from the intraparietal sulcus. This discovery is a bit startling and naturally raises questions about the role of the intraparietal sulcus' in numerical cognition, since researchers previously believe it to be the only place in the brain that computes approximate number. We are currently preparing new experiments to figure out what role the intraparietal sulcus is playing. Is it also approximating numerosity independently of the visual cortex? Does it receive pre-computed approximate number representations from the visual cortex? We have hints that part of the intraparietal sulcus' role may be in bringing number approximations to conscious awareness.

 

 

HD TODAY e-NEWS: Insights from Human Development's Research & Outreach

HD TODAY e-NEWS is a quarterly digest of cutting-edge research from the Department of Human Development, College of Human Ecology, Cornell University. Explore the HD Today e-NEWS website at https://hdtoday.human.cornell.edu/ and discover a wide range of resources:

FEATURES

Qi Wang Retraces Her Path to Memory Research

Qi Wang, an Association for Psychological Science (APS) Fellow esteemed for her scientific contributions on culture and autobiographical memory, reflects on her career path in an interview with Suparna Rajaram, the President of APS.


Special Issue on Women in Science 

Wendy Williams, founder, and director of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science (CIWS) has edited a special edition of a journal on evidence-based research about factors that affect the academic and professional lives of women in STEM fields. In her editorial of Underrepresentation of Women in Science: International and Cross-Disciplinary Evidence and Debate, Williams provides a framework for understanding some of the issues and viewpoints that surround the debate of women in science.


Mothers Instill Eco-Awareness

Gary Evans and colleagues are the first to show that parenting can have long-term effects on pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood. This has important implications for education and public policy.


Long-Term Depression Risk for Girls Who Start Puberty Early

In his blog, The Methods Man, F. Perry Wilson MD, commends the quality of Jane Mendle's research on how early puberty may lead to depression in adulthood. Her results have important implications for depression screening recommendations of girls in early puberty.


Too Young to Plead

In a recent paper, Valerie Reyna and Rebecca Helm reported that adolescents are more likely than adults to plea guilty to crimes they have not committed. They argue that the decision-making processes involved with plea-bargaining are developmentally immature in adolescents and they are vulnerable to pleading to a lesser charge even if innocent.


Mapping Emotion in the Brain

Daniel Casasanto and graduate student Geoffrey Brookshire propose an exciting new theory that, contrary to the prevailing view that different emotions are localized in specific areas of the brain, emotions are “smeared over both hemispheres” depending on an individual’s handedness.


The Accents We Trust

Katherine Kinzler studies the development of social cognition, with particular emphasis on exploring infants’ and children’s attention to the language and accent with which others speak as a marker of group membership. A recent article by the BBC explores her research and its implications for empathy, cultural learning, and trust.


 

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, June 18, 2018

by Susan Kelley

According to a radical new model of emotion in the brain, a current treatment for the most common mental health problems could be ineffective or even detrimental to about 50 percent of the population.

Since the 1970s, hundreds of studies have suggested that each hemisphere of the brain is home to a specific type of emotion. The neural system for emotions linked to approaching and engaging with the world – like happiness, pride and anger – lives in the left side of the brain, while emotions associated with avoidance – like disgust and fear – are housed in the right.

Daniel Casasanto, associate professor of human development and of psychology, adjusts electrodes on the scalp of a study participant.

But those studies were done almost exclusively on right-handed people. That simple fact has given us a skewed understanding of how emotion works in the brain, according to Daniel Casasanto, associate professor of human development and of psychology.

That long-standing model is, in fact, reversed in left-handed people, whose emotions like alertness and determination are housed in the right side of their brains, Casasanto suggests in a new study. Even more radical: The location of a person’s neural systems for emotion depends on whether they are left-handed, right-handed or somewhere in between, the research shows.

“The old model suggests that each hemisphere is specialized for one type of emotion, but that’s not true,” Casasanto said. “Approach emotions are smeared over both hemispheres according to the direction and degree of your handedness … . The big theoretical shift is, we’re saying emotion in the brain isn’t its own system. Emotion in the cerebral cortex is built upon neural systems for motor action.”

The study, “Approach motivation in human cerebral cortex,” appeared June 18 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. The paper’s first author, Geoffrey Brookshire, was a doctoral candidate in Casasanto’s lab at the University of Chicago and a visiting doctoral student in Casasanto’s lab at Cornell.

The idea for the researchers’ theory, called the “sword and shield” hypothesis, stems from Casasanto’s observation that we use our dominant hands for approach-oriented actions, while nondominant hands are used for avoidance movements.

“You would wield the sword in your dominant hand to make approach-related actions like stabbing your enemy, and use the shield in your nondominant hand to fend off attack,” he said. “Your dominant hand gets the thing you want and your nondominant hand pushes away the thing you don’t.”

The researchers theorized that approach and avoidance emotions are built on neural systems for approach and avoidance actions.

“If this sword and shield hypothesis is correct,” he said, “then three things should follow: Approach motivation should be mediated by the left hemisphere in strong right-handers, as it has been in tons of previous studies. But it should completely reverse in strong left-handers. For everyone in the middle of the handedness spectrum, approach emotions should depend on both hemispheres.”

Casasanto and Brookshire tested this idea by stimulating the two hemispheres of the brains of 25 healthy participants with a pain-free electrical current. The goal was to see if they could cause the participants to experience approach-related emotions – including enthusiasm, interest, strength, excitement, determination and alertness – depending on which hemisphere of the brain was stimulated and whether they were righties or lefties or somewhere in between. The study participants got zapped for 20 minutes a day for five days, and reported before and after the five days how strongly they were feeling emotions like pride and happiness.

The experiment worked – and corroborated the researchers’ first test of the sword and shield hypothesis using brain imaging. Strong righties who were zapped in the left hemisphere experienced a boost in positive emotions. So did strong lefties zapped in the right hemisphere. But when lefties are zapped in the left hemisphere – or righties in the right – “you see either no change or a detriment in the experience of these emotions,” Casasanto said.

The work has implications for a current treatment for recalcitrant anxiety and depression called neural therapy. Similar to the technique used in the study and approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it involves a mild electrical stimulation or a magnetic stimulation to the left side of the brain, to encourage approach-related emotions.

But Casasanto’s work suggests the treatment could be damaging for left-handed patients. Stimulation on the left would decrease life-affirming approach emotions. “If you give left-handers the standard treatment, you’re probably going to make them worse,” Casasanto said.

“And because many people are neither strongly right- nor left-handed, the stimulation won’t make any difference for them, because their approach emotions are distributed across both hemispheres,” he said.

“This suggests strong righties should get the normal treatment, but they make up only 50 percent of the population. Strong lefties should get the opposite treatment, and people in the middle shouldn’t get the treatment at all.”

However, Casasanto cautions that this research studied only healthy participants and more work is needed to extend these findings to a clinical setting.

The research was funded by a James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award and the National Science Foundation.

FEATURES

The Rhythms of Sign Language

Daniel Casasanto, a new member of the HD faculty, heads an NSF investigation of brain areas activated by hand movements when communicating through ASL.


Range of good feelings key to healthy aging

In a new study led by Anthony Ong, people who experienced the widest range of positive emotions had the lowest levels of inflammation throughout their bodies.


NYC-based research finds interaction with kids is key

Marianella Casasola is working with Head Start Centers and day schools in New York City to promote development of spatial skills and language acquisition in preschoolers.


Seeing eye expressions help us read the mental state of others

New research by Adam Anderson reveals why the eyes offer a window into the soul.


STUDENTS IN THE NEWS

Simulation workshops teach youth about concussion risks

Students in Valerie Reyna's Laboratory for Rational Decision Making welcome the Ithaca Youth Bureau's College Discovery Program for workshops on neuroscience and concussion risks.


The vegetarian identity - it's not just eating vegetables

Daniel Rosenfeld '18 and his adviser Anthony Burrow, have developed a new way of thinking about what it is to be a vegetarian.


2017 CCE Summer Intern Elizabeth David: Child development in an outdoor classroom

Elizabeth Cavic '18 was a 2017 College of Human Ecology CCE Summer Intern working on the project "Enhancing Children’s Play and Parent’s Knowledge in Suffolk County" under the direction of Dr. Marianella Casasola. Read about her internship experience.


MULTIMEDIA

NPR's Science Friday discusses risky decisions and the teenage brain

 


 

The National Science Foundation's blog, Discovery. July 14, 2017

by Stanley Dambroski and Madeline Beal

From an outside perspective, understanding a spoken language versus a signed language seems like it might involve entirely different brain processes. One process involves your ears and the other your eyes, and scientists have long known that different parts of the brain process these different sensory inputs.

To scientists at the University of Chicago interested in the role rhythm plays in how humans understand language, the differences between these inputs provided an opportunity for experimentation. The resulting study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences helps explain that rhythm is important for processing language whether spoken or signed.

Previous studies have shown the rhythm of speech changes the rhythm of neural activity involved in understanding spoken language. When humans listen to spoken language, the brain's auditory cortex activity adjusts to follow the rhythms of sentences. This phenomenon is known as entrainment.

But even after researchers identified entrainment, understanding the role of rhythm in language comprehension remained difficult. Neural activity changes when a person is listening to spoken language -- but the brain also locks onto random, meaningless bursts of sound in a very similar way and at a similar frequency.

That's where the University of Chicago team saw an experimental opportunity involving sign language. While the natural rhythms in spoken language are similar to what might be considered the preferred frequency for the auditory cortex, this is not true for sign language and the visual cortex. The rhythms from the hand movements in ASL are substantially slower than that of spoken language.

The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to record the brain activity of participants as they watched videos of stories told in American Sign Language (ASL). One group was made up of participants who were fluent in ASL, while the other was made up of non-signers. The researchers then analyzed the rhythms of activity in different regions of the participants' brains.

The brain activity rhythms in the visual cortex followed the rhythms of sign language. Importantly, the researchers observed entrainment at the low frequencies that carry meaningful information in sign language, not at the high frequencies usually seen in visual activity.

Daniel Casasanto

"By looking at sign, we've learned something about how the brain processes language more generally," said principal investigator Daniel Casasanto, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago (now Professor of Human Development at Cornell University). "We've solved a mystery we couldn't crack by studying speech alone."

While the ASL-fluent and non-signer groups demonstrated entrainment, it was stronger in the frontal cortex for ASL-fluent participants, compared to non-signers. The frontal cortex is the area of the brain that controls cognitive skills. The authors postulate that frontal entrainment may be stronger in the fluent signers because they are more able to predict the movements involved and therefore more able to predict and entrain to the rhythms they see.

"This study highlights the importance of rhythm to processing language, even when it is visual. Studies like this are core to the National Science Foundation's Understanding the Brain Initiative, which seeks to understand the brain in action and in context," said Betty Tuller, a program manager for NSF's Perception, Action, and Cognition Program. "Knowledge of the fundamentals of how the brain processes language has the potential to improve how we educate children, treat language disorders, train military personnel, and may have implications for the study of learning and memory."