I’m a bit of a bower bird when it comes to research and I have interest in many different areas. I guess if you had to find a way to describe it all it would be the investigation of emotion and the brain.
The front runner is my research in humour. My interest in the psychology of humour began when I was in grad school and had the opportunity to work with Rod Martin – the nicest man on the planet. His research identified different humour styles – aggressive, self-defeating, affiliative, and self-enhancing and he explored variables in the person that related to their own style of humour. Now, I’m turning this around and looking at the perception of humour and variables in the observer that relate to that perception. Humans have the most amazing ability to perceive very subtle differences in the intent behind humour. For example, if someone teases another person with a joke, we are generally good at knowing if they intended to hurt that person or not – the result a true laugh, an uncomfortable laugh or a “dude, you didn’t just say that.” I want to know how we know, what happens in my brain when I perceive different humour styles, and is there something about me that makes me better or less able to perceive the differences. This means creating different stimuli (video clips of comedians demonstrating the different humour styles) and showing them to people. Sometimes comparing their responses with variables about themselves (e.g. their personality, their mood, their self-esteem etc.) and sometimes observing what is happening in their brains while they view the clips (e.g. EEG, MEG or MRI).
The second major area of research is the neuro-cognitive factors in depression in adults and older adults. Neuro-cognitive basically means the combination of the brain and way a person thinks, and how this combination can influence mood. One example is information processing. When people experience depression, this influences the way we process information in 4 ways. First it affects what we pay attention to. When we experience depression, we are more likely to attend to negative information in our environments. Second, depressed mood affects the way our brains interpret neutral information, biasing it towards seeing the information as negative. Third, people experiencing depression are more efficient at storing negative information in what we call a depressive schema. Simply put, a schema is a network of information, beliefs and knowledge. So, when someone has a depressive schema, negative information slots into the network very efficiently. Finally, depression influences the way that information is recalled from memory. When we are experiencing depressed mood, our brains are better and faster at remembering negative memories and other negative information.
The prefrontal cortex (behind your forehead) houses the central exectutive. This is pretty much what it sounds like, the part of the brain that tells the other parts what to do and when do it. It manages abilities like attention, working memory and inhibition. Inhibition is the ability to stop or restrict something. People who ruminate are limited in their ability to stop or restrict their ruminative thoughts. So part of my research is examining how this part of the brain relates to rumation. I can do this through imaging techniques like MRI or MEG, or through cortical stimulation with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). tDCS involves stimulating the brain with a very mild electrical current – very mild! It isn’t enough to make a neuron fire, but just enough to increase its resting potential. Kind of like the difference between starting a sprint from a standing position, or starting a sprint from racing blocks. Using tDCS, we can activate or inhibit the central executive and measure changes in rumination and related behaviours.
I have recently begun examining overt behaviours that share the same repetitive, recurrent and uncontrollable features such as excessive reassurance seeking. Research shows that people with depression actively seek reassurance from friends and close others that they are valuable and worthy . Unfortunately, over time, this repetitive and constant behaviour becomes a burden on relationships. These individual differences are limited in their ability to inhibit their reassurance seeking behaviour, so this too may be related to differences in the central executive.
My third broad area of research is late life depression and wellbeing. The ageing myth that infuriates me the most is “Of course they are depressed, they’re old!” Yes, older adults experience depression just like anyone else, but it is not a normal, and certainly not an inevitable, part of growing older. A couple of years ago I was able to travel around Canberra and interview several older adults regarding their experiences and their mood. Most said now is the best time in their lives. The question becomes, what can we learn from these happy and content individuals to better understand those who do become depressed.
Because I think that aging is such an important area for psychology I conduct research on how to teach psychology of ageing in a way that encourages students to learn more about the area, and possibly even plan careers in the area. One such project was a 3rd year undergraduate course where the students had to write an independent study paper on any area within the psychology of ageing. But more than this, they had to meet with an older mentor from the community several times throughout the semester to gather real life information about their topic of interest. My favourite part of this project was the finding that both the elder mentors and the students learned that the other “wasn’t so scary after all”.
Finally, I conduct a fair amount of research into teaching and learning in higher education. I’ve conducted research into increasing interest in the psychology of ageing and how to teach the subtleties of ethics in psychology.
And then I have all of the varied research my students are working on!