Translational and Comparative Affective Science

Our Research

The Translational and Comparative Affective Science Team’s primary research goal is to understand the biological and evolutionary mechanisms that generate individual variation in affect and emotion.

Our work adopts a “Psychological Constructivist” view that theorizes that discrete emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, and fear, emerge from fundamental psychological and biological ingredients, many of which are present in non-human animals. We study the emergence of these ingredients across ontogeny (developmental time) and phylogeny (evolutionary time), with a focus on affect an ongoing neurophysiological state that is characterized by some degree of valence and arousal. Our research program investigates the ingredients of emotion in multiple species (e.g., nonhuman primates, marine animals, ungulates, humans) from their birth into adulthood using methods ranging from neuroscience, psychology, systems science, and behavioral biology ranging from neuroanatomical studies to experience sampling.

We conduct womb-to-tomb affective science, studying the biology of the building blocks of emotion across the lifespan from fetal development into old age.
Our work is translational because we study animals and humans together to understand how human emotion works, with an eye on understanding human emotion-related disorder and disease. Our work is comparative because we study emotion-related processes in a variety of animals in order to understand how emotion has evolved. 

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Current Research Questions


What are the neural mechanisms that support affect and attention?

We investigate the brain circuits and networks that are involved in, and critical for, the generation of normal affect and regulation of attention. We conduct neuroanatomical studies in rhesus monkeys and neuroimaging studies in both rhesus monkeys and humans.  By studying monkeys and humans using the same tools (structural and resting state magnetic resonance imaging), we are asking questions about the evolution of the affective brain.


How does the social environment shape the ingredients of emotion?

Working with rhesus macaques, we are investigating how the social environment shapes the development of affective processing, attention, and the neurobiological structures that subserve them.  We adopt systems science and network statistics to characterize individuals’ social roles in their environments and multi-method approaches to characterize affective and attentional processing (including behavioral testing, psychophysiology, and eye tracking). In humans, we are investigating the social functions that emotions serve, the social contexts in which emotions arise, and whether “socialness” is a fundamental property of human emotional experience.


What are the fundamental processes and properties of emotion and where do they emerge?

This program adopts both a phylogentic and developmental perspective. Psychological constructivist views point to a core set of capacities that come together to generate emotions– core affect (a neurophysiological state characterized by valence and arousal), attention, conceptual knowledge (what we know about emotion), and language (the words we use for emotions).  This line of research tests evaluates the emergence of these capacities across the animal kingdom in order to understand how evolution has shaped emotion.  We also investigate the emergence of core affect and attention across development in rhesus monkeys, asking questions about how early experience and individual differences in neurobiology shape life-long variation in affective processing.


How can we advance the understanding psychological well-being in nonhuman animals?

People can tell us how they feel using words.  Nonhuman animals cannot. People are also exceptionally good at “seeing human” in other people, animals, and intimate objects.  This means that when we see an animal performing a particular behavior and we are interested in how an animal feels, we are likely to judge him or her according to our own emotion concepts– regardless of whether those concepts actually apply to the animal.  This research program aims to develop and use objective measures of well-being, including cardiac physiology, to track individuals’ psychological processing over time.  Our goal is to develop well-being assessments that do not rely on human perception of animals, distancing ourselves from anthropomorphic assumptions about what it means for animals to be “well”. We are also interested in how qualities of people (e.g., personality, current emotional states, etc.) influence their perceptions of animals.


How do developmental brain diseases such as Zika virus infection and Alzheimer’s disease influence behavior and wellbeing?

Diseases that cause anatomical changes to the brain can have a long lasting impact on behavior and experience. We investigate how fetal Zika virus infection alters the developing brain both from an anatomical and behavioral perspective, with an eye on determining the psychosocial challenges that human babies infected with Zika during development will face. We also investigate neural changes as a result of both healthy and unhealthy aging (using a model for early Alzheimer’s Disease) and how processes related to aging impact affective processes and well-being. Ultimately, the goal of this research program is to develop interventions to improve the lives of people who are impacted by these diseases.