Tag Archive for Psychology Department

Loui’s Study of Chill-Inducing Music Featured in BBC

Psyche Loui is assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior.

Psyche Loui is assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior.

When Psyche Loui first heard Rachmaninov’s Piano Concert No. 2 on the radio as a college student, she still remembers the chill that went down her spine, the fluttering in her stomach and the racing heart. Now an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience and behavior at Wesleyan, Loui studies this phenomenon–which she refers to as “frissons” or “skin orgasms”–in her lab. She recently co-authored a paper with Luke Harrison ’14 in Frontiers in Psychology reviewing the evidence and theories in this area, and spoke to the BBC about their findings.

Loui, also an accomplished pianist and violinist, points out that the sensations associated with music can be as varied as trembling, flushing and sweating, and sexual arousal. People can often pick out particular measures in a song that trigger such sensations, allowing researchers to pinpoint specific features that are most likely to trigger the sensations in listeners.

Sudden changes in harmony, dynamic leaps (from soft to loud), and melodic appoggiaturas (dissonant notes that clash with the main melody, like you’ll find in Adele’s Someone Like You) seem to be particularly powerful. “Musical frisson elicit a physiological change that’s locked to a particular point in the music,” says Loui.

Researchers have been able to use fMRI scans to map out the regions of the brain that respond to music, and chart the mechanisms that correspond to this phenomenon.

One major component seems to be the way the brain monitors our expectations, says Loui. From the moment we are born (and possibly before), we begin to learn certain rules that characterise the way songs are composed. If a song follows the conventions too closely, it is bland and fails to capture our attention; if it breaks the patterns too much, it sounds like noise. But when composers straddle the boundary between the familiar and unfamiliar, playing with your expectations using unpredictable flourishes (like appoggiaturas or sweeping harmonic changes), they hit a sweet spot that pleasantly teases the brain, and this may produce a frisson.

For instance, violated expectations seem to startle (albeit gently) the automatic nervous system, in its most primitive region, the brain stem – producing the racing heart, the breathlessness, the flush that can signal the onset of a frisson. What’s more, the anticipation, violation, and resolution of our expectations triggers the release of dopamine in two key regions – the caudate and the nucleus accumbens, shortly before and just after the frisson. You see a similar response when people take drugs or have sex, which may explain why we find shiver-inducing songs so addictive, says Loui.

Stemler Presents Findings on Creativity, Citizenship in HOT Schools

Steve Stemler

Steve Stemler

On July 1, Associate Professor of Psychology Steven Stemler presented the results of a two-year study measuring creativity and citizenship in Connecticut’s Higher Order Thinking (HOT) schools to an audience of faculty, staff and students in Judd Hall.

The HOT schools are a collaborative of about 14 public schools in Connecticut that voluntarily commit to a philosophy of education, which emphasizes “teaching and learning in, about, and through the arts in a democratic setting,” according to the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development Office of Culture and Tourism’s website. About two years ago, the HOTs leadership team approached Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center about conducting a study to assess the effectiveness of their program. Emmanuel Kaparakis, director of the Centers for Advanced Computing, asked Stemler to lead the study, which was a good fit with research he’d been working on in his lab to develop assessments of creativity and citizenship. They received a two-year, $60,000 grant from the state for the study.

In order to assess the program’s effectiveness, the study sought to go beyond measures of critical thinking, which an be assessed with standardized tests, by measuring creativity and citizenship — important student outcomes, according to the schools’ mission statements.

Sanislow Published in Journal of Clinical Psychiatry

Charles Sanislow

Charles Sanislow

Charles Sanislow, associate professor of psychology, associate professor of neuroscience and behavior, is the co-author of an article titled “Interactions of Borderline Personality Disorder and Anxiety Disorders Over 10 Years,” published in the June issue of The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

This report examines the relationship of borderline personality disorders (BPD), as defined by the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition), to anxiety disorders using data on the reciprocal effects of improvement or worsening of BPD and anxiety disorders over the course of 10 years.

Sanislow and his colleagues prospectively assessed borderline patients with DSM-IV–defined co-occurring generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, panic disorder without agoraphobia, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) annually between 1997 and 2009. They used proportional hazards regression analyses to assess the effects of monthly improvement or worsening of BPD and anxiety disorders on each other’s remission and relapse the following month.

The study suggests that BPD negatively affects the course of general anxiety disorder, social phobia, and PTSD. In contrast, the anxiety disorders, aside from PTSD, had little effect on BPD course. For general anxiety disorder and social phobia, whose course BPD unidirectionally influences, the researchers suggest prioritizing treatment for BPD, whereas BPD should be treated concurrently with panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, or PTSD.

 

Loui Receives $200K Grant from Imagination Institute

Psyche Loui is assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior.

Psyche Loui is assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior.

Psyche Loui, assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior, was awarded a $200,000 grant from the Imagination Institute’s Advancing the Science of Imagination: Toward an “Imagination Quotient” initiative. She will use the grant for the first longitudinal neuroscience study on the development of aesthetic creativity through jazz improvisation.

Loui’s was one of 16 projects to receive funding, out of an initial pool of 251 who expressed interest.

Learn more in this press release.

Sanislow Co-authors Paper on Personality Disorders, Suicide Risk

Chuck Sanislow

Chuck Sanislow

Charles Sanislow, associate professor of psychology, associate professor of neuroscience and behavior, is the co-author of a new paper published in the journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and TreatmentThe paper is titled “Personality Disorder Risk Factors for Suicide Attempts over 10 Years of Follow-Up.

The findings in the paper are from the Collaborative Longitudinal Personality Disorders Study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), on which Sanislow has been an investigator since it began in 1996.

Faculty, Students, Alumni Present Research at Society for Research in Child Development Meeting

Jessica Taggart, former lab coordinator, presenting work done with Jillian Roberts '15, current lab coordinator Lonnie Bass, and Associate Professor of Psychology Hilary Barth, titled, "Minimal group membership and children's ideas of equality." This project is Robert's thesis.

Jessica Taggart, former lab coordinator, presenting work done with Jillian Roberts ’15, current lab coordinator Lonnie Bass, and Associate Professor of Psychology Hilary Barth, titled, “Minimal group membership and children’s ideas of equality.” This project is Robert’s thesis.

Wesleyan was strongly represented by faculty, undergraduates and alumni at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, the major conference in the field. The meeting was held in Philadelphia, Pa. March 19-21.

Members of the Cognitive Development Labs, co-directed by Associate Professor of Psychology Anna Shusterman and Associate Professor of Psychology Hilary Barth, presented research at the conference. Former lab coordinator Jessica Taggart presented work done with Jillian Roberts ’15, current lab coordinator Lonnie Bass, and Barth titled, “Minimal group membership and children’s ideas of equality.” This is Roberts’ senior thesis project.

Andrew Ribner ’14 presented his senior thesis, “Preschool indicators of primary school math ability” with Shusterman and former postdoc Emily Slusser. And Barth presented “A non-Bayesian explanation of adults’ and children’s biased spatial estimates” with Ellen Lesser ’15, Sheri Reichelson ’16, Anna Schwab ’16, Taggart, Slusser and Bass.

In addition, numerous presentations were made at the conference by alumni who did undergraduate work in Wesleyan’s Cognitive Development Labs. They included: Christian Hoyos ’11, Julia Leonard ’11, Jessica Sullivan ’08, Ariel Starr ’07, Nick DeWind ’06, Joanna Schiffman ’11,  Margaret Gullick ’07, Elise Herrig ’10, Kyle MacDonald ’10, Dominic Gibson ’10 and Samantha Melvin ’13. Former Shusterman lab coordinator Talia Berkowitz and former postdoc Mariah Schug also presented work at the conference. Learn more about all these presentations, and what these individuals are doing now, in this post on the Cognitive Development Labs blog.

Shusterman, Feld ’11 Article Published on Student Stress in College Prep High Schools

A paper co-authored by Lauren Feld ’11 and Associate Professor of Psychology Anna Shusterman was recently published in the Journal of Adolescence. Titled, “Into the Pressure Cooker: Student Stress in College Preparatory High Schools,” the paper was Feld’s senior thesis at Wesleyan.

The article will appear in Volume 41, June 2015 of the journal. It can be read online here.

In the study, Feld and Shusterman assess stress and related behaviors in high-achieving high school students. Specifically, they explored symptoms, sleep and eating, attitudes and coping behaviors related to stress. They found that students reported high rates of physical and psychological correlates of stress, as well as unhealthy behaviors in response to stress. Feld and Shusterman write that these findings indicate areas of vulnerability in high-achieving student populations.

Feld is now completing medical school at Mount Sinai, and just matched for a residency in internal medicine at the University of Chicago.

 

Robinson Studies Individual Differences in Reactions to Junk Food

Mike Robinson studies how individuals react differently when presented with a junk food diet.

Mike Robinson, standing, studies how individuals react differently when presented with a junk food diet. Pictured in the foreground is Sarah Mi ’16. (Photos by Olivia Drake MALS ’08)

Mike Robinson, assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior, and his students are interested in what makes individuals react differently when they catch a whiff of freshly-baked brownies or another sugary treat.

Mike Robinson and Rebecca Tom '16 remove the junk food concoction from the food processor.

Mike Robinson and Rebecca Tom ’16 remove the junk food concoction from the food processor.

These Pavlovian cues associated with junk food can trigger cravings to eat and increase the amount of food consumed. People who are more susceptible to the motivational effects of these cues may have a higher risk for over consuming readily available junk food and becoming obese. Furthermore, the overconsumption of junk food may itself heighten attraction to food cues. But what causes some people to be more susceptible than others?

Robinson, together with colleagues at the University of Michigan, explores these issues in an article titled “Individual Differences in Cue-Induced Motivation and Striatal Systems in Rats Susceptible to Diet-Induced Obesity,” published in the March 12 edition of Neuropsychopharmacology. Read the abstract here.

The researchers introduced a junk food diet (a mash of potato chips, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter, and chocolate milk powder) to rats to study whether there were pre-existing and/or diet-induced increases in attraction to cues for junk food, and motivation to seek out the food. They found that prior to gaining weight, the rats that would go on to become obese with the junk food diet showed a greater attraction to food cues. After being exposed to the junk food diet and gaining excessive amounts of weight, those rats began treating food cues as a reward in of themselves, and were more willing to work to obtain them.

Sanislow, Sypher ’13 Published in Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology

A chapter titled “Research Domain Criteria (RDoC)” by Charles Sanislow, associate professor of psychology, associate professor of neuroscience and behavior, was published in the Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology in January.

Kevin Quinn of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Isaiah Sypher ’13 co-authored the chapter.

Sypher worked in Sanislow’s lab at Wesleyan and then went on to a research position at the NIMH Intramural Program in Affective Neuroscience. He is currently in the process of applying to clinical science programs in psychology.

Sanislow and Quinn are both charter members of the NIMH Working Group for the RDoC, a project that is developing a new diagnostic approach based on internal mechanisms to guide research on mental disorders.

Robinson Pinpoints Addiction Center in Brain

Mike Robinson recently published an article in the Journal of Neuroscience about the center of the brain that triggers addiction.

Mike Robinson recently published an article in the Journal of Neuroscience about the center of the brain that triggers addiction.

Having trouble resisting another glass of wine or a decadent slice of chocolate cake? In a new study, Mike Robinson, assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior, pinpoints the part of the brain that triggers addiction. It’s in the brain’s amygdala, an almond-shaped mass that processes emotions, reports the news site Medical Xpress.

These findings were published Dec. 10 in the Journal of Neuroscience (read the full story here). Robinson is the lead author, and co-wrote the paper with two colleagues from the University of Michigan.

The study was done using a technique called optogenetics with rats. Whenever the rats pressed a lever to earn a sugary treat, a laser light painlessly activated the amygdala in their brains for a few seconds, making neurons in it fire more excitedly. When the rats pressed a separate lever to earn a treat, their amygdala was not activated. When the rats were then faced with a choice over which lever to press, they focused exclusively on getting the reward that previously excited their amygdala and ignored the other. They were also willing to work much harder to earn the first reward.

Robinson told Medical XPress that the results suggest a role for the amygdala in generating focused and almost exclusive desire as seen in addiction.

“Understanding the pathways involved in addictive-like behavior could provide new therapeutic avenues for treating addiction and other compulsive disorders,” he said.

QAC Hosts Final Exam Evaluation, Poster Session

More than 100 students presented their quantitative analysis research Dec. 5 in Beckham Hall. 

More than 100 students presented their quantitative analysis research Dec. 5 in Beckham Hall.

On Dec. 5, the Quantitative Analysis Center (QAC) hosted its annual student research final exam evaluation event for its QAC 201 course. More than 100 students presented their projects at a poster session to fellow students, faculty, alumni and friends of Wesleyan.

Plous’s MOOC Student Honored by Jane Goodall for Compassionate Act

Professor of Psychology Scott Plous and anthropologist Jane Goodall presented Qian Zhang of China with a Day of Compassion Award from the Jane Goodall Institute. Zhang was a student in Plous's Social Psychology MOOC last summer and received the honor for intervening when she heard a boy being beaten in a neighboring apartment. 

On Dec. 6, Professor of Psychology Scott Plous and anthropologist/ primatologist Jane Goodall presented Qian Zhang of China with a Day of Compassion Award. Zhang was a student in Plous’s Social Psychology MOOC last summer and received the honor for intervening when she heard a boy being beaten in a neighboring apartment.

In the summer of 2014, students from more than 200 countries enrolled in Professor of Psychology Scott Plous’s Social Psychology “MOOC” (massive open online course). The class was offered by Wesleyan, hosted by Coursera.org, and drew more than 200,000 students. The final assignment of the course, “The Day of Compassion,” asked students to live 24 hours as compassionately as possible and to analyze the experience using social psychology.