Embodied Emotion Laboratory

Stephen D. Smith, Ph.D.

Science never sleeps--it just drinks more coffee.

Research Interests | Funding | Selected Publications | Faculty Webpage | Department of Psychology | University of Winnipeg

Last updated: December 2021

Research Interests

The primary research focus of the Embodied Emotion Laboratory is to understand the neuroscience of emotional perception and emotional experience. To that end, we have embarked on a series of interrelated projects in order to understand the emotional modulation of attention using cognitive, neuroimaging, and neuropsychological research strategies.


The Emotional Modulation of Attention


Emotional stimuli capture and hold our attention. They also elicit increased activity in brain areas related to attention, perception, and movement. My students and I are investigating several different aspects of these emotion-movement-attention interactions. These studies include neuroimaging (fMRI) studies, research with individuals who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, and computer-based studies with undergraduate students. We are interested in learning (a) how learned emotional associations affect attention and the brain, (b) how emotion influences our experience of time, and (c) how we perceive and interpret emotional body language.


The Role of the Spinal Cord in Emotional Responses


My colleagues and I are using functional MRI of the spinal cord to examine whether emotion influences activity in motoric and somatosensory regions of this CNS structure. Using this state-of-the-art neuroimaging method, we have been able to demonstrate that emotional images increase cervical spinal cord responses during movements (Smith & Kornelsen, 2011). This emotion-dependent activity appears to be limb-specific emotional images depicting scenes involving upper-limb responses activate the cervical spinal cord (which innervates the upper limbs) more than do scenes involving lower-limb responses (McIver et al., 2013). Recently, we showed that emotions influence activity in the thoracic spinal cord, the region in the middle of the chest and abdomen (Kornelsen et al., 2014, 2015). These spinal cord segments have sensory and motoric (movement) functions, but are also involved with a number of autonomic nervous system responses (e.g., pupil dilation, stimulating glands that secrete epinephrine and norepinephrine). Ongoing studies will attempt to link activity in the spinal cord with activity in different brain regions, thus providing a detailed depiction of how the central nervous system is involved in various emotional behaviours.


Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)


Individuals with Autonomous Sensory Median Response (ASMR) experience sensory-emotional responses to specific sensory triggers. The physical element of ASMR often involves tingling sensations on the scalp, neck, and back. The emotional element, on the other hand, is often described as a sudden calmness leading to deep relaxation. Such responses to sensory triggers are reminiscent of synesthesia, a condition in which one sensation (e.g., a sound) automatically elicits another sensation (e.g., a taste). However, ASMR is unique in that the sensory triggers generally involve social, but not sexual, intimacy. For instance, many individuals have ASMR response to whispering, or close-up videos of day-to-day actions such as painting one's fingernails or brushing one's hair. Surprisingly, although upwards of 40,000 people are thought to experience ASMR, this condition has received little scientific attention. My colleagues and I have published papers investigating personality traits that are more pronounced in ASMR, as well as resting-state fMRI studies showing that ASMR is associated with atypical patterns of functional connectivity, task-based fMRI studies, and EEG experiments.

Resting-State fMRI and Personality Traits


Functional neuroimaging of the brain has revealed that groups of neural structures often work together to perform tasks. In the past 15 years, researchers have also noted that it is possible to detect the activity of networks in the resting brain (i.e., when people are not performing a cognitive task). These networks consist of brain regions whose patterns of firing are correlated. Well-known resting-state networks include the default mode network, the salience network, and the central executive network. Dr. Kornelsen and I currently have two separate sets of data from participants who have completed resting-state fMRI scans and different personality measures. We are looking at how the functional connectivity of different brain networks varies as a function of different personality traits.


Gambling, Mindfulness, and Dark Flow States


Gambling is a multibillion-dollar industry in Canada, with a net annual revenue of over $13 billion. An obvious question that arises from this stunning statistic is, Why do people continue to gamble when it is clear that the house always wins in the end? Research indicates that casinos and slot-machine designers are well aware of learning principles identified by psychologists almost one hundred years ago. Through the use of variable-ratio reinforcement schedules and pairing games with rewarding sounds and imagery, game designers have made slot machines and video lottery terminals (VTLs) dangerously addictive. However, the allure of slot machines extends beyond operant and classical conditioning; gamblers also report that slot machines can induce states of consciousness that make it very difficult to stop playing. The current research explores one of these subjective states, referred to by gamblers as the zone, or the machine zone. The zone is a place where they tend to forget everything else around them and become completely absorbed in playing the game. We will examine whether the players for whom the zone is so positively rewarding are those who have trouble staying on task in daily life because of attentional difficulties. We will also examine whether modern multiline games (where players bet on multiple paylines each spin), are capable of reigning in wandering attention by administering frequent positive reinforcement using a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule. Finally, we will examine the role that different personality factors such as trait mindfulness play in these processes. Together, these studies will allow us to delineate the game characteristics that contribute to their appeal, and that increase the potential for harm.


Using Wireless EEG to Measure Emotional Regulation Impairments


The process of emotional regulation involves monitoring and controlling the intensity affective responses to an external event and/or an internal thought process. Numerous studies, including both neuroimaging and neurological research, have noted that the frontal lobes play a critical role in these regulatory processes. However, as the brain ages, the volume of the frontal lobes is reduced. In some cases, such as in dementia, this atrophy can lead to cognitive impairments, including difficulties regulating emotions. The long-term goal of the current interdisciplinary research is to develop methods and applied technology allowing researchers and medical staff to detect patterns of brain activity that can predict (within seconds or minutes) when emotionally dysregulated behaviours will occur.

Current Funding

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Discovery Grant (2014-2022). Functional MRI Investigations Characterizing an Emo-Motoric Network of Emotional Experience.


Copyright notice (adapted from various sources): The documents available for download from this web site are protected by various copyright laws, but I am allowed to distribute copies to individuals for personal research and study. Your click on any of the preceding links constitutes your request to me for a personal copy of the linked document, and downloading the document constitutes my delivery of a personal copy. By downloading any of the documents, you agree to adhere to the terms and constraints invoked by each author or copyright holder. Any other use is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder.

Note: The university is switching to a new server in 2022. I will update the links to PDFs of the articles after the switch is complete.


  • Smith, S. D., & Kornelsen, J. (in press). Functional connectivity associated with individual differences on the emotional attentional blink task. NeuroImage: Reports.


  • Smith, S. D., Nadeau, C., Sorokopud-Jones, M., & Kornelsen, J. (in press). Resting-state functional connectivity associated with self-reported interoceptive sensibility. Brain Connectivity.


  • Kruger, T., Dixon, M. J., Graydon, C., Larche, C. J., Stange, M., Smith, S. D., & Smilek, D. (in press). Contrasting mind-wandering, (dark) flow, and affect during multiline and single-line slot machine play. Journal of Gambling Studies.


  • Tchajkova, N., Ethans, K., & Smith, S. D. (2021). Inside the lived perspective of life after spinal cord injury: a qualitative study of the desire to live and not live, including with assisted dying. Spinal Cord. 59, 485-492. doi: 10.1038/s41393-021-00619-3


  • Fredborg, B., K., Champagne-Jorgensen, K., Desroches, A. S., & Smith, S. D. (2021). An electroencephalographic examination of the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). Consciousness & Cognition, 87. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2020.103053.


  • Kruger, T. B., Dixon, M. J., Graydon, C., Stange, M., Larche, C. J., Smith, S. D., & Smilek, D. (2020). Using deliberate mind-wandering to escape negative mood states: Implications for gambling to escape. Journal of Behavioral Addictions.


  • Smith, S. D., Fredborg, B. K., & Kornelsen, J. (2020). Functional connectivity associated with five different categories of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) triggers. Consciousness & Cognition. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2020.103021.


  • Dixon, M. J., Gutierrez, J., Larche, C. J., Stange, M., Graydon, C., Kruger, T. B., & Smith, S. D. (2019). Reward reactivity and dark flow in slot-machine gambling: Light and dark routes to enjoyment. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 8, 489-498. doi: 10.1556/2006.8.2019.38


  • Smith, S. D., Fredborg, B. K., & Kornelsen, J. (2019). Atypical functional connectivity associated with Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): An examination of five resting-state networks. Brain Connectivity, 9, 508-518. doi: 10.1089/brain.2018.0618


  • Smith, S. D., Fredborg, B. K., & Kornelsen, J. (2019). A functional MRI investigation of the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). PeerJ, 7, e7122. doi:10.7717/peerj.7122


  • Parkinson, T. D., Kornelsen, J., & Smith, S. D. (2019). Trait mindfulness and functional connectivity in cognitive and attentional resting state networks. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 13, 112. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2019.00112


  • Curby, K. M., Smith, S. D., Moerel, D., & Dyson, A. (2018). The cost of facing fear: Visual working memory is impaired for faces wearing fearful expressions. British Journal of Psychology. doi:10.1111/bjop.12324 PDF


  • Fredborg, B. K., Clark, J., & Smith, S. D. (2018). Mindfulness and Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). PeerJ, 6, e5414. doi.org/10.7717/peerj.5414


  • Bilevicius, E., Kolesar, T. A., Smith, S. D., Trapnell, P., & Kornelsen, J. (2018). Trait emotional empathy and resting state functional connectivity: Alterations in default mode, salience, and central executive networks. Brain Sciences, 8, 128. doi:10.3390/brainsci8070128


  • Bilevicius, E., Smith, S. D., & Kornelsen, J. (2018). Resting state network functional connectivity patterns associated with trait mindfulness. Brain Connectivity, 8, 40-48. doi: 10.1089/brain.2017.0520


  • Smith, S. D., Kornelsen, J., & McIver, T. A. (2018). Generating facial expressions of disgust activates neurons in the thoracic spinal cord: An fMRI study. Social Neuroscience, 13, 328-332. doi:10.1080/17470919.2017.1324811


  • Smith, S. D., Fredborg, B. K., & Kornelsen, J. (2017). An examination of the default mode network in individuals with Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Social Neuroscience, 12, 361-365. doi:10.1080/17470919.2016.1188851


  • Fredborg, B. K., Clark, J., & Smith, S. D. (2017). The big five personality traits and Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 247. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00247


  • Kolesar, T. A., Kornelsen, J., & Smith, S. D. (2017). Separating neural activity associated with emotion and implied motion: An fMRI study. Emotion, 17, 131-140.

  • Kolesar, T. A., Feist, K. M., Smith, S. D., & Kornelsen, J. (2015). Assessing nociception by fMRI of the human spinal cord: A systematic review. Magnetic Resonance Insights, 8(S1), 31-39. PDF


  • Kornelsen, J., Smith, S. D., & McIver, T. A. (2015). A neural correlate of visceral emotional responses: Evidence from fMRI of the thoracic spinal cord. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, 10, 584-588. PDF


  • Sboto-Frankenstein, U. N., Lazar., T., Bolster, R. B., Thind, S., Gervai, P., Gruwel, M. L. H., & Smith, S. D. (2015). Symmetry of the fornix using diffusion tensor imaging. Journal of Magnetic Resonance Imaging, 40, 929-936. PDF


  • Gervai de Dreesen, P., Sboto-Frankenstein, U. N., Bolster, R. B., Thind, S., Gruwel, M. L., & Smith, S. D., Tomanek, B. (2014). Tractography of Meyers loop asymmetries. Epilepsy Research, 108, 872-882. PDF


  • Hildebrand, K. D., & Smith, S. D. (2014). Attentional biases toward humor: Separate effects of incongruity detection and resolution. Motivation and Emotion, 38, 287-296. PDF


  • Garcia-Campuzon, M.-T., Virues-Ortega, J., Smith, S. D., & Moussavi, Z. (2013). Effect of cognitive training targeting associate memory in the elderly: A small randomized trial and a longitudinal evaluation. Journal of the American Geriatric Society, 61, 2252-2254. PDF


  • McIver, T. A., Kornelsen, J., & Smith, S. D. (2013). Limb-specific emotional modulation of cervical spinal cord neurons. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 13, 464-472. PDF


  • Schweizer, T. A., Li, L., Alexander, M. P., Smith, S. D., Graham, S., Fischer, C., & Fornazarri, L. (2013). From the thalamus with love: Neuroplasticity, emotion, and the origins of synaesthesia. Neurology, 51, 509-510. PDF


  • Edmiston, E., McHugo, M., Dukic, M., Smith, S. D., Abou-Khalil, B., Eggers, E., & Zald, D. H. (2013). Enhanced visual cortical activation for emotional stimuli is preserved in patients with unilateral amygdala resection. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33, 11023-11031. PDF


  • Kornelsen, J., Smith, S. D., McIver, T. A., Sboto-Frankenstein, Latta, P., Yin, D., & Tomanek, B. (2013). Detection of sensory stimulation in the thoracic spinal cord using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Journal of Magnetic Resonance Imaging. PDF


  • Salter, J. E., Smith, S. D., & Ethans, K. D. (2013). Positive and negative affect in individuals with spinal cord injuries. Spinal Cord, 51, 252-256. PDF


  • Smith, S. D., & Kornelsen, J. (2011). Emotion-dependent responses in spinal cord neurons: A spinal fMRI study. NeuroImage, 58, 269-274. PDF


  • Piech, R. M., McHugo, M., Smith, S. D., Dukic, M. S., Van Der Meer, J., Abou-Khalil, B., Most, S. B., & Zald, D. H. (2011). Attentional capture by emotional stimuli is preserved in patients with amygdala lesions. Neuropsychologia, 49, 3314-3319. PDF


  • Smith, S. D., McIver, T. A., Di Nella, M. S. J., & Crease, M. L. (2011). The effects of valence and arousal on the emotional modulation of time perception: Evidence for multiple stages of processing. Emotion, 11, 1305-1313. PDF


  • Piech, R. M., McHugo, M., Smith, S. D., Dukic, M. S., Van Der Meer, J., Abou-Khalil, B., & Zald, D. H. (2010). Fear-enhanced visual search persists after amygdala lesions. Neuropsychologia, 48, 3430-3435. PDF

  • Juruena, M. F., Giampietro, V. P., Smith, S. D., Surguladze, S. A., Dalton, J. A., Benson, P. J., Cleare, A. J., & Fu, C. H.Y. (2010). Amygdala responsivity to masked happy and sad facial expressions. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 16, 383-387. PDF


  • Smith, S. D., Abou-Khalil, B., & Zald, D. H. (2008). Post-traumatic stress disorder in a patient with no left amygdala. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 117, 479-484. PDF

  • Hakyemez, H. S., Dagher, A., Smith, S. D., & Zald, D. H. (2008). Striatal dopamine transmission in healthy humans during passive unpredictable monetary reward and novelty. NeuroImage, 39, 2058-2065. PDF

  • Most, S. B., Smith, S. D., Levy, B., Cooter, A. B., & Zald, D. H. (2007). The naked truth: Appetitive distractors impair rapid target perception. Cognition & Emotion, 21, 964-981. PDF

  • Smith, S. D., Most, S. B., Newsome, L. A., & Zald, D. H. (2006). An emotional blink of attention elicited by aversively conditioned stimuli. Emotion, 6, 523-527. PDF

  • Smith, S. D., & Bulman-Fleming, M. B. (2006). Hemispheric asymmetries for the conscious and unconscious perception of emotional words. Laterality, 11, 304-330. PDF

  • Smith, S. D., Dixon, M. J., Bulman-Fleming, M. B., Birch, C., Laudi, N., & Wagar, B. M. (2005). Experience with a category alters hemispheric asymmetries for the detection of anomalies. Neuropsychologia, 43, 1911-1915. PDF

  • Merikle, P. M., & Smith, S. D. (2005). Memory for information perceived without awareness. In N. Ohta, C. M. MacLeod, & B. Uttl (Eds.), Dynamic cognitive processes (pp. 79-99). Tokyo: Springer-Verlag. PDF

  • Smith, S. D., & Bulman-Fleming, M. B. (2005). An examination of the Right-Hemisphere Hypothesis of the lateralization of emotion. Brain and Cognition, 57, 210-213. PDF

  • Smith, S. D., Bulman-Fleming, M. B. (2004). A hemispheric asymmetry for the unconscious perception of emotion. Brain and Cognition, 55, 452-457. PDF

  • Smith, S. D., Dixon, M. J., Tays, W. J., & Bulman-Fleming, M. B. (2004). Anomaly detection in the right hemisphere: The influence of visuospatial factors. Brain and Cognition, 55, 458-462. PDF

  • Smith, S. D., Tays, W. J., Dixon, M. J., & Bulman-Fleming, M. B. (2002). The right hemisphere as an anomaly-detector: Evidence from visual perception. Brain and Cognition, 48, 574-579. PDF

  • Schweizer, T. A., Dixon, M. J., Desmarais, G., & Smith, S. D. (2002). Not all triads are created equal: Further support for the importance of visual and semantic proximity in object identification. Brain and Cognition 48, 537-541. PDF

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