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Research in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience lab focuses on understanding individual differences in how we navigate our social world. In our everyday lives, we are often faced with the task of interpreting others’ behaviors. For example, a silent pause in a conversation can communicate contentment, anger, disagreement, awkwardness, respect, thoughtfulness, or empathy. Depending on the context in which these situations are encountered (e.g., a job interview or a first date), our ability to resolve uncertainty can have profound consequences on many aspects of our lives.

Images of facial expressions of emotion have proven a useful tool for examining the ability to deal with this type of ambiguity. For instance, some facial expressions provide clear information about the emotions and intentions of others (e.g., “she’s happy” or “he’s angry”), whereas other expressions (e.g., surprise) are ambiguous because they have signaled both positive (e.g., a surprise birthday party) and negative outcomes (e.g., witnessing an accident) in the past. When experienced in the absence of a clarifying context, surprised expressions can provide insight into an individual’s disposition: surprised faces are stably interpreted as positive by some people and negative by others (Kim et al., 2003; Kim et al., 2004; Neta et al., 2009). Also, this bias appears to be stable across time (Neta et al., 2009), and also generalizes to other categories of stimuli (Neta et al., 2013).  

We have shown that, despite these individual differences in the interpretation of surprised faces, the “initial, more automatic” interpretation of surprised faces is consistently negative (i.e., even for those people who eventually interpret the expression as positive; Neta et al., 2009; Neta & Whalen, 2010; Neta et al., 2011). This early negative assessment is thought to recruit the amygdala (Kim et al., 2003; Neta & Whalen, 2010). Positive interpretations may then require an additional regulatory process — one that only some individuals adopt naturally. An important issue, then, is whether there is a form of regulation that is specific to affective processing, or if this regulation is produced by more domain-general control mechanisms.

Our research addresses these automatic (bottom-up) processes that drive initial interpretations of uncertainty, and the regulatory (top-down) control systems that attempt to modulate responses to conform with situational contexts. We use a variety of methods to examine the affective processes that drive an individual’s valence bias. These approaches include behavioral experiments (making decisions about emotional stimuli at a computer), psychophysiological studies that help us to target implicit or automatic responses (facial muscle activity and sweat gland activity) as well as experiments conducted in the MRI that reveal the brain’s response to ambiguity. Finally, we integrate network analytic approaches using resting-state fMRI to examine the role of functional brain networks in processing and resolving ambiguity.

This work has been and continues to be funded by the NIH and NSF.