We assume that emotions limit our ability to think clearly. Drivers passing a car crash, for example, tend to drive recklessly just when they should drive cautiously, thanks to the feelings triggered by the distressful scene.
But sometimes our emotions can improve our cognitive ability to focus on a task.
Dr. Aminda O'Hare studies how, and when, and why this happens.
Her research considers the interaction of cognition and emotion: what are the circumstances that lead to emotions interfering with our cognitive processes, and when do emotions facilitate our cognitive process?
Studying tasks of cognitive control
Conducting her tests in the CAPES Lab, one of the Psychology Department's EEG facilities, O'Hare uses tasks of cognitive control to assess her subjects' abilities to stay focused on a task both when emotion is present and when it's not. Her subjects must make decisions about word colors while also being influenced by words that evoke an emotional response, such as "hatred" or "horror." Can they complete the cognitive tasks without being slowed down by the emotional content of the words?
"We process words so automatically that we can’t not process the meaning of the words. There are parts you need to focus on, and parts you need to ignore, to achieve your goal."
O'Hare’s view is that "emotions can brighten your attention."
"When emotions are engaged, they can increase the ability to stay focused. But for traditional cognitive scientists, this view is still controversial."
"Our emotions get a bad rap but, depending on the situation, they can help us make decisions. It can be valuable to pay attention to our emotions. Humans are hard-wired to do well in dangerous situations."
Equipment in the EEG lab lets O'Hare record the nuances of each subject's responses. Attaching electrical sensors to specific areas of the subject’s scalp, she can track the brain’s activity.
"There are multiple layers to the study: the emotional levels of the subject, the emotion of the situation, and the emotion of the information the subject needs to react to."
Added to that complexity are the multiple trials that O'Hare runs on each subject. She then takes the average of the electrical activity across all the trials to establish ERPs: event related potentials. Using the ERPs, she can pinpoint at what stage emotion might be changing cognitive processing.
Improved understanding of the intersections of cognition and emotion could have some very practical applications, O’Hare said: for example, the potential for the military to gauge a soldier's ability to make decisions in extremely stressful situations.
Research opportunities for students
To accomplish her trials, O'Hare works with a dedicated group of student researchers—8 undergraduate and 3 graduate students.
"It’s very time intensive, but that’s the nature of neuroscience," she said.
"We have to work with our participants one at a time, for two hours each. And then the data has to be processed. Having students working with me in the lab is invaluable. We are screening subjects 9 to 5, 5 days a week, and there is always someone available to work with a subject."
"That’s why I’m so invested in giving undergraduate opportunities in my lab—the experience can have a positive influence on their lives."
The balance of research and teaching
O'Hare's own journey to the field of cognitive neuroscience began with a psychology course in her senior year of high school.
"I’d always been drawn to things that are still undiscovered: outer space, the deep ocean. Then I found out there’s still so much we don’t know about how the brain works…well, I've been obsessed with the brain ever since."
In her senior year in college, she worked with a new faculty member who was setting up an EEG lab. "I helped get it set up first semester, and I ran an EEG project the second semester for my honors thesis—and then only applied to graduate programs with cognitive neuroscience labs," she said.
This is O'Hare’s second year at UMass Dartmouth.
"The ad for the job seemed almost magical, because it was for someone to teach courses in biopsychology—which is my favorite thing to teach—who could also run the EEG lab," she said.
O'Hare is also collaborating with Prof. Maureen Hall of the STEM Education and Teacher Development Department to study the effects of mindfulness training on cognitive control.
"I like the balance of teaching being valued just as much as research. While I have a lab focus, I also enjoy getting out in the classroom and interacting with students."
Hall's graduate level class of teachers are receiving training in mindfulness practices for attention training; O'Hare—using her emotion/cognition trials before and after the training—will try to determine if the students show an increase in cognitive control.
"This is exciting because I haven’t had many opportunities to do applied research, where I'm directly trying to help subjects improve," O'Hare said.
"Practices of mindfulness are gaining increased attention, so I'm looking forward to extending my research in this area—especially as it relates to teacher training."