Details of current and planned research

Our over-arching research aim is to understand why, and under what conditions, we remember emotionally-arousing information better than neutral information. In our research emotional arousal and valence are conceived as consequences of predictions out brain makes about what might happen next, and, as such, we think of emotion as useful for decision-making. When we work with both positive and negative emotional stimuli we use economic models to understand how the brain integrates the value of these disparate outcomes.                

A key strand of this reserach involves behavioural and neuroimaging investigations of memory encoding and retrieval. We examine memory for stimuli that are negative and arousing, as well as stimuli that stand out in other way, to understand the various priviledged routes to preferential attention and retention. The theoretical framework that we are developing to encompass the empirical work builds on the framework of retrieved context memory models.

Our current research is driven by an ambition to understand when these empirical effects of emotion are rational, and when they can be described as 'misbehaviours', violations of the principles of raionality. At a very basic sense, it is adaptive to remember the most important pieces of information, such as stimuli associated with reward or punishment. But it may be less rationale to continue attenting to such stimuli and remember them when the context change, and they are no longer goal-relevant.

Much of our research utilised words and pictures that have an emotional value. We have spent quite some time trying to control these stimuli for various confounds and limit the distress participants experience. We have also used secondary reinforcers (financial gain and loss of monetary reward). In order to bring stronger emotion even more strongly into the experiments at the lab we have employed a number of primary reinforcers such as food, drink, and physical pain and effort. Sometimes it is possible to have an even more robust control of confounds by choosing stimuli that are emotional for some people, or only in some situations.

Much of our work with emotional stimuli is inspired by the predictive coding or "Bayesian Brain" framework. We use  conditioning paradigms to examine, for example, how the emotional responses to an impending painful electric shock, and the neural representation of this response, is affected by the predictions and expectations people acquire through their experience and through the information that they receive. This work has implications for our understanding of placebo and psychological interventions prior to painful medical procedures. Our work on pain is in collaboration with Prof Johns.

Practically at the lab we often take self-reported emotion; quantitative measures of memory and attention; and peripheral psychophysiology such as skin conductance and eye movement. Our neuroimaging uses the EEG and fMRI facilities. We are also presently collaborating on an animal model of emotionla memory with Dr. Gigg and Prof. Neill.

  • Here's a link to our publications. From 2017, our submissions are all posted on bioaRxiv, where you can find free preprints and fresh, just-submitted research papers.
  • That seem to have increased our appeal to predatory journals - here's a good dissection.
  • We've complied a list of interesting conferences - it's an editable public list for cognitive/affective scientists in the UK - suggestions welcome!
  • Here are some words of wisdom about the applying for a PhD, picking a PhD advisor, and some of the more surprising challenges of doing a PhD. For the undettered, here's how you can apply for a PhD at the University. Please contact Deborah if you are interested in working with us at the emotional cognition lab - there are various opportunities throughout the year.