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Current Research & Methods

Funded by grants from the National Institute of Aging, research in the lab currently focuses primarily on two major projects: a study of emotion and normative aging, and a study of the impact of neurodegenerative diseases on emotional functioning.


    Dementia, particularly frontotemporal dementia, can lead to impairments in social and emotional functioning; such changes are often misunderstood and accurate diagnosis can be difficult, particularly in the early stages of the illness. Using a wide array of dynamic stimuli, we apply a fine-grained socioemotional assessment to identify domains of loss and preservation in frontotemporal dementia and related illnesses, such as Alzheimer's disease. Measures include behavioral, autonomic, and experiential indicators, during tasks that cover a spectrum of functioning, from basic emotional reactivity, to empathy and emotion regulation, to complex social interactions. In addition, we examine relationships between these lab-based measures and biological markers. Through this multi-method, interdisciplinary work that spans psychology, neurology, and affective neuroscience, we aim to contribute to improvements in clinical diagnosis and care, as well as to basic understanding of socioemotional functioning and aging.

    Caring for a loved one with dementia is a meaningful part of family life, but can also create a significant burden for caregivers. Dementia caregivers are at a heightened risk for physical and psychological problems. Thus, using the same measures mentioned above, we have begun a new project to study the role that emotion plays in understanding the relationships among patient deficits, caregiver burden, and caregiver health in caregiver spouses of patients with neurodegenerative disease. With this work, we hope to a) determine how specific patient deficits influence caregiver burden and the emotional quality of the caregiver-patient relationship; b) understand how the emotional quality of the caregiver-patient relationship links caregiver burden with caregiver health problems; and c) understand how caregivers' level of emotional functioning and genetic polymorphisms influence their vulnerability and resilience to caregiver burden and the associated health problems.

    Being able to understand and respond to other people's mental and affective states is a critical part of what makes us human. Researchers have noted that different theoretical perspectives offer different predictions for age differences in the multidimensional construct of empathy. While neuropsychological perspectives generally predict age-related decline in the ability to process the emotions of others, socioemotional perspectives predict that certain aspects of empathy should be well preserved, and may even improve, in normal adult aging. Using a cross-sectional sample of young, middle-aged, and older adults, the present study examines whether these two perspectives may be applied to predict different patterns of age differences in empathy-related processes (as measured by subjective, behavioral, and physiological indices). Data collection is complete and analyses ongoing.


    The centerpiece of this research has been an ongoing longitudinal study of a large sample of long-term first marriages in middle and old age. This work uses an observational methodology in which couples come to the laboratory and engage in naturalistic discussions about important topics related to their relationship. These interactions are studied to determine if there are signs in emotional experience, behavior, language, and physiology that can be used to discriminate between the interactions of couples who are satisfied and dissatisfied with their relationships, to discriminate between couples at different stages of the life span, and to predict what will happen to the level of couples' relationship satisfaction over time.
    The other focus of this work is to learn about normative changes in emotion that occur with age. Here, emotional reactivity, emotional regulation, and emotional knowledge/understanding are assessed in the laboratory in participants at different ages (cross-sectionally and longitudinally) to determine how human emotions change as we age. Unlike many other aspects of human functioning which show pronounced declines with age (e.g., memory, psychomotor skills), certain aspects of emotional functioning appear to be relatively spared as we age, and some even show signs of continuing improvement and positive development in late life. Data collection is complete; analyses are ongoing.

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Our Measures

The Berkeley Psychophysiology Lab utilizes a multi-method approach to understanding emotion. We collect the following types of data:

Physiological responding is assessed by placing sensors on participants. These sensors monitor normal physiological signals such as heart rate, sweat, breathing, and skin temperature.


With the consent of participants, trained coders use videotapes to code emotional facial expressions (such as anger, sadness, amusement, and surprise). For some tasks, participants' eye movements are also measured. This allows us to understand what people find most salient when viewing photos and films.


All participants are often asked to describe how they feel during our tasks. Participants are sometimes also asked to describe themselves and their life experiences.


For a few tasks, we also use a device that tracks participants’ eye movements. This is done to determine what people are attending to during our tasks.