Emotion and Attention

Faculty Webpage | Department of Psychology | University of Winnipeg

Last updated: June 2015


The Research Project

 

In the current project, we will be using both behavioural and neuroimaging methods to assess how emotion influences our ability to encode and process visual stimuli. Research projects in my lab focus on four main questions:

 

1)                To what extent do learned emotional stimuli influence our attention?

 

Our environment is laden with stimuli that we find emotional. Some of these items have innately emotional qualities, such as spiders or angry faces. However, we have emotional responses to other stimuli as well. We are happy to see the house that we grew up in, or feel nervous around cars after having a fender-bender. These emotional responses are learned. I am interested in how our responses to learned emotional stimuli affect our ability to allocate attentional resources. Will these items capture attention in the same way as angry faces or spiders? Or will they elicit different responses? I am also examining whether there is a difference between our attentional responses to positive and negative learned emotional associations.

 

2)                How does emotion affect how we experience time?

 

We have all experienced the subjective feeling of time standing still during emotional events. We are currently examining this phenomenon in the lab. We are specifically examining whether there are multiple systems mediating this effect--a rapid (pulvinar-based) system for reactions to threatening stimuli and a slower (cortical) system that is sensitive to both arousal and emotional valence.

 

3)                How do we perceive emotional body language?

 

Body language provides an important source of emotional information. Based on your posture and muscle tension, it is possible to infer an enormous amount of information about your internal state. Our research is examining how the perception of body language affects activity in the nervous system. To this end, we will be using fMRI of the brain and spinal cord to identify networks of neural activity associated with perceiving positive and negative bodily expressions. We will also be testing individuals who have experienced traumatic brain injuries to see if damage to different regions is associated with specific deficits in the perception of facial expressions and body language. Our goal is to help develop rehabilitative programs to help these individuals.


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