SASSC The Expert Interview
February 8, 2017
University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill
University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill
Thank you again for taking the time to do this interview, Kristen! Let’s jump right in and start broadly with your program of research. What’s the big idea that drives your work and what are specific ways you empirically tackle that idea?
My research is ultimately interested in what emotions are, how they work, and how the brain implements them. This question, although very fundamental, is of crucial importance to affective science and psychology/neuroscience more broadly—if we’re going to make headway in understanding how emotions impact decision making in the political arena, how they impact interpersonal behavior in the home, workplace, battlefield, and clinician’s office, or how they go awry in mental and physical illness, then we need to understand their fundamental psychological and neural mechanisms. Of course, we all have assumptions about what emotions are, but if we relied on these assumptions alone, then we might miss out on how emotions really function in the mind and brain. For instance, some of my work has shown that people’s knowledge and expectations about the meaning of certain emotion categories alters how they subsequently make inferences about their own and others’ body states. This process is linked to the language that a person speaks and the emotion categories that their language encodes. If we relied on commonsense alone, then we wouldn’t typically assume that language is an important “ingredient” in emotions, but my research suggests that it is (along with other important “ingredients” such as people’s body states and their ability to wield their attention).
To tackle questions about the mechanisms of emotion, may lab uses tools from psychology and neuroscience that span multiple levels of analysis. For instance, we use behavioral methods to manipulate people’s access to concepts and their attention towards different aspects of their emotional experiences. We also use behavioral measures to assess their self-reports, their reaction times to engage in certain behaviors, and the nature of their overt behaviors – like whether they’re aggressive or submissive. Because emotions are fundamentally embodied phenomena, we also use measures from peripheral physiology such as assessing heart rate, cardiac impedance, blood pressure, skin conductance, hormone secretion, etc. And finally, to understand how emotions as psychological states map on to brain states, we use a range of neuroscience tools including fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), EEG (electroencephalography), and patient-based lesion and neurostimulation studies. In our newer work, we’re also adding developmental and cross-cultural lenses to our approach to examine how these multi-level processes vary across the lifespan and different cultural contexts.
Can you tell us more about what drew you to this work? Was there a singular moment when you realized you wanted to become an affective scientist or was it a more gradual developmental path?
My path to affective science was pretty meandering. I’ve always been interested in what made people tick and early on, I think I saw almost every topic I took in school as a way to address that question. I started out college as a dual English and Biology major. I loved them both, but I struggled because they seemed completely incompatible as career paths. The Biology major came to an abrupt halt after I took an ill-fated genetics course involving the painstaking dissection of drosophila. But around that time, I had also taken Psych 101 on a lark and found it fascinating. I still kept my English major but decided to also major in Psychology. Like most early psychology majors, I was sure I wanted to be a clinical psychologist, and found out that to get into clinical psychology PhD programs, I needed some research experience. Since there weren’t a lot of clinical labs at my university, I decided in a rather utilitarian way to work in a lab that studied emotion. Funnily enough, I wasn’t even that interested in studying emotions per se—they just seemed relevant to clinical psychology! However, I was lucky enough to be accepted as an undergraduate research assistant into the lab of Lisa Feldman Barrett and I immediately became smitten with the work that I was doing under her advisement. I realized that I could combine my interest in the nature of human experience (which I had been trying to pursue through the English major) with my love of science (which I had been trying to pursue through the Biology major). Around this time, Lisa was developing the Conceptual Act Theory of emotion and we were asking these really big questions about what emotions are and how they’re created. Before I knew it, I was doing a senior thesis, had ditched the idea of clinical psychology, and was applying to work with Lisa on my PhD. The rest, as they say, is history.
Love your story! I discovered this path similarly: was an English-French double major at first, but after taking a psychology class, I suspected that I loved literature and language more for the psychology behind them. Joining a developmental emotion lab confirmed that! … On a different note. Something I admire about your research is how you take a multilevel, interdisciplinary approach to affective science. This is something that strikes me as super important when grappling with emotion– especially since emotion intersects with every aspect of life, from mental processes to health and society more generally. Could you give us students advice on how to successfully integrate multiple levels of analysis and disciplines into a cohesive research program? What are its challenges and how do you advise addressing those challenges in one’s own work?
I would hope you like this approach since you’re in my lab. [Both laugh.] But in all seriousness, I think this is the way the field is ultimately going, so we’re all going to have to continue to incorporate multiple levels of analysis into our science. That said, it’s no small undertaking! The struggle that one always deals with when doing interdisciplinary work is striking a balance between breadth versus depth. It’s impossible to be an absolute expert in everything, but if you’re going to incorporate multiple levels of analysis into your work, you have to possess a good working knowledge in multiple domains. You need to know which questions are the right questions to begin asking and where the potential pitfalls lie for that specific method. I think the best way to achieve this comes down to perspective: to see yourself as someone who’s always learning. There’s never a reason you can’t learn a new method and you should always be learning something new, no matter your career stage. I’ve learned from several mentors that the only way to incorporate new methods is to just dive in—read, get experience through collaborators, and don’t be afraid to incorporate things that you’ve never used before into your work. Everyone has to start at square one when they’re learning something new. Another key is collaboration—we can’t do big science alone, so surround yourself with other bright, talented people who use methods that could tell you something new about your own work. Collaborating across disciplines can be hard due to different scientific language, norms, and values, but if you can, it’s worth it for the improved science.
That segues nicely into my next question. In what direction would you like to see affective science move? What are ways we can improve the field? On the flip side, what are we, as a field, doing right? What would you say is our scientific strength?
I think the major scientific strength of affective science is its recognition that affect cross-cuts so many human phenomena. In that regard, our focus is really broad and we can examine how affect plays a role in some of the world’s biggest problems and opportunities: relationships, negotiations, the law, politics, decision making, finance, human-computer interactions, mental illness, stress, cancer, obesity, cardiac disease, neurodegenerative illness, morbidity and mortality, you name it. Our biggest challenge is both crossing those interdisciplinary lines and getting our science out there. We need to do a better job letting others—both in psychology, other fields, and in the public at large—know how critically important emotions and affect are. Hopefully societies like SAS are helping to make this happen but we have a lot to do as individual scientists too.
Absolutely. On a different note: what researcher or thinker from the past century (or more) has had a powerful impact on your thinking about emotion and science more broadly? Are there any books or authors you recommend us up-and-coming affective scientists reading? They don’t have to be about emotion specifically either.
This is really hard—I don’t think I can come up with a single researcher/thinker, but a couple experiences come to mind. In graduate school, I was part of two separate endeavors that involved reading a lot of literature. The first involved reading and summarizing the history of emotion research and that had a really important impact on me. I read greats such as James, Darwin, Wundt, Duffy, Arnold, etc. First of all, I realized that there’s no substitute for reading the primary text—often, like a game of telephone, information gets altered as others retell it so you should always read the primary text and form your own opinion of it. Second, I realized that a lot of the ‘modern’ theoretical ideas about emotion are not so new—debates have been re-occurring for centuries in philosophy and then in psychology and neuroscience. This experience really honed my knowledge of emotion theory and gave me a good grounding in terms of the themes that characterize psychological research in emotion.
A second really formative experience that I had in grad school involved reading the behavioral neuroscience research on affective circuitry in non-human animals. Again, I realized that there’s no substitute for the primary sources and reading this literature for myself really shaped my understanding of the neurobiology underlying emotion and affect.
Other great reads from outside of psychology that I’ve enjoyed over the years include books from Searle, Bechtel, Edelman, and Humphreys on mind-brain connection and the nature of consciousness. (And as a vestige of my English major days, I still continue to read a lot of fiction in my “spare time” too!).
What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of being an affective scientist? And more generally, of being a professor?
Getting to ask big questions about the nature of emotion and mentoring junior scientists are hands-down the best part of being an affective scientist and professor.
What is the best mindset for succeeding in science (and affective science, in particular)?
As I alluded to earlier, I think having a growth (versus fixed) mindset is critical for being a good scientist. You should assume that you’ll always keep learning, even after you finish your PhD, your postdoc, your Assistant Professorship, etc. In this spirit, I think it’s also important to question everything. Facts aren’t fixed—in science, they’re always changing based on new information. In affective science and psychology more generally, there’s a lot of disagreement—don’t just take other people’s opinions as fact—read, evaluate the data, and form your own take on things based on your evaluation of the evidence.
One final question: what’s the top advice you’d give to students working towards a career in affective science?
My top advice to students is to make sure that you find joy in your science. There’s a lot of focus right now on replicability in psychology and neuroscience, and of course, we need to make sure first and foremost that our science is sound. But I think that an unfortunate by-product of the focus on replicability has been a shift away from recognizing the pure joy inherent in having new ideas, formulating hypotheses, and getting to test those hypotheses. The field is competitive and a lot of students and trainees are understandably afraid of what their careers will hold. In the current climate, I’ve also seen students be afraid that people will come after them if they’re wrong in their hypotheses or if they find something they didn’t predict. Rather than taking intellectual risks, it seems that some students feel they have to focus on small, safe projects. It’s important to balance out riskier studies with safer ones, but I hope that students can also remember why they got into this career in the first place—hopefully because they had big, burning questions about affect and emotion that inspire them. Science is serious and it needs to be precise and careful, but it’s also fun and rewarding too. We’re lucky to be able to do something we love and call it “our job.”
Great advice—I know many of us students go through this struggle, especially with the job market in mind. … Ok, let’s wrap it up there! Thank you again so much for your time. As always, a pleasure speaking with you, and I know other students will also appreciate hearing your experiences and advice.
Thanks so much for asking me!