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Research Projects in the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab

At the broadest level, research in the lab examines the psychological and neural processes involved emotion, self-control, social cognition and learning both across the life span and in individuals with clinical disorders. While some research projects focus on just one of these abilities, most concern interactions among them. Our work on emotion regulation, for example, examines the way in which our capacity for self-control enables us to change the emotions we feel. Similarly, our work on empathy examines the way in which social cognitive and emotional processes interact to enable us to connect with and understand other’s feelings. Examples of current projects include:

  1. How Do We Regulate Our Emotions? For centuries, theorists have posited that emotions are generated by appraisals, or interpretations, of the significance of events to one's current goals, wants, or needs. Or put another way, how we feel about an event depends upon how we think about it. If how we think determines what we feel, then changing what we think should also change our emotions. Indeed, the ability to cognitively change how we think about the meaning of events – an ability known as cognitive reappraisal – is one of our most powerful means of regulating emotional responses. A decade ago, when we began our work in this area, no research and addressed the fundamental psychological and neural processes that enable us to reappraise. The SCN lab has numerous projects examining all aspects of our ability to reappraise, or to use other ways of thinking to control feeling, including:

         Studies of the basic psychological and neural mechanisms that determine when and how effective reappraisals – as well as other forms of emotion regulation – stem from interactions between brain systems supporting cognitive control processes on the one hand, and brain systems supporting emotional appraisal processes on the other.

         In collaboration with Walter Mischel, also in Psychology at Columbia, and B. J. Casey, at Weill Cornell Medical College, we are studying the development of emotion regulation abilities in adolescence, a time of great social and emotional change. Visit here for more information about this research.

         With Yaakov Stern at Columbia Medical School we also begun examining the ways in which emotion regulation may change in older age.

         Studies of how both regulatory capacities and emotional response tendencies may be altered in substance users, like smokers (in collaboration with Hedy Kober, PhD at Yale University) and problem drinkers (in collaboration with Jon Morgenstern, PhD at Columbia Medical School) as well as in clinical disorders ranging from borderline personality disorder (in collaboration with Barbara Stanley, PhD at Columbia Medical School and Dr. Harold Koenigsberg at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine) to depression (in collaboration with Drs. Jeffrey Miller and John Mann at Columbia Medical School and with Drs. James Murrough and Dennis Charney at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine).

       For relevant reviews of our work on these topics, and related work from others, see:

Ochsner, K. N., Silvers, J. A. & Buhle, J. T. (2012). Functional imaging studies of emotion regulation: A synthetic review and evolving model of the cognitive control of emotion. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1251, E1-E24.

Ochsner, K. N. & Gross, J. J. (2008). Cognitive emotion regulation: Insights from social cognitive and affective neuroscience. Currents Directions in Psychological Science, 17(1), 153-158.

Ochsner, K. N. (2008). The social-emotional processing stream: Five core constructs and their translational potential for schizophrenia and beyond. Biological Psychiatry, 64 48-61.

Ochsner, K. N. & Gross, J. J. (2005). The cognitive control of emotion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(5), 242-249.

 

  1. How do we empathically connect with and understand others? The ability to empathically connect with another person and understand what they are thinking and feeling is so essential to human social interaction that empathic impairments may profoundly disrupt one's ability to function normally in the world. he SCN lab has numerous projects examining all aspects of our ability to using thinking to control feeling, including:

         Studies of the ways in which empathy depends on the appraisal and social cognitive processes used to generate emotions and understand their interpersonal implications. This work seeks to understand many aspects of empathy, including the nature of the mental representations that underlie it, the extent to which empathic ability is automatic as compared to deliberate and controlled, and the ways in which it is influenced by neurohormones like oxytocin (in collaboration with Jennifer Bartz, PhD at McGill University).

         Studies of how the mechanisms underlying empathy may be altered by disorders of social behavior and emotion, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (in collaboration with Jennifer Bartz, PhD at McGill University) and Schizophrenia (in collaboration with Michael Green, PhD at UCLA).

       For relevant reviews of our work on these topics, and related work from others, see:

Zaki, J., & Ochsner, K. N. (2012). The neuroscience of empathy: Progress, pitfalls and promise. Nature Neuroscience, 15(5), 675-680.

Zaki, J. & Ochsner, K. N. (2011). Reintegrating the Study of Accuracy Into Social Cognition Research. (Target Article) Psychological Inquiry, 22:3, 159-182.

Olsson, A. & Ochsner, K. N. (2008). The role of social cognition in emotion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(2), 65-71.

 

 

 

 


Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory
Department of Psychology
Columbia University

1190 Amsterdam Avenue
New York City, NY 10027