The Social Regulation of Risk and Effort

From Coan and Sbarra, 2015: “High quality social relationships correspond with longer, happier, and healthier lives — facts that hold true, as far as anyone knows, regardless of geography or culture. Although social relationships have been linked to health for decades (if not millennia), the mechanisms of this link remain speculative. Here we describe Social Baseline Theory (SBT), a perspective that integrates the study of social relationships with principles of attachment, behavioral ecology, cognitive neuroscience, and perception science. According to SBT, the human brain assumes proximity to social resources — resources that comprise the intrinsically social environment to which it is adapted. Put another way, the human brain expects access to relationships characterized by interdependence, shared goals, and joint attention. Violations of this expectation increase cognitive and physiological effort as the brain perceives fewer available resources and prepares the body to either conserve or more heavily invest its own energy. This increase in cognitive and physiological effort is frequently accompanied by distress, both acute and chronic, with all the negative sequelae for health and well being that implies. Thus, the first sense in which SBT refers to a social baseline has to do with the default and intrinsically social ecology the brain expects to function within.”


Frontal EEG Asymmetry, Affective Style and Psychopathology

Affective disorders such as depression and anxiety are a pervasive and costly source of emotional suffering. In a variety of projects, we are working toward characterizing the role of asymmetrical patterns of electroencephalographic (EEG) activity over the frontal cortex in affective style, emotion regulation and risk for affective disorders. A large and growing body of research now associates relatively greater left prefrontal neural activity with approach oriented affects such as anger and joy, and relatively greater right prefrontal neural activity with withdrawal oriented affects such as fear, sadness and disgust. These affective associations have implications for the development of affective disorders. For example, numerous studies have associated depression and anxiety with a generalized pattern of relatively more right than left resting prefrontal brain activity. More recently, relatively greater left prefrontal activity has been associated with hypomanic symptoms. Much of this work is reviewed in Coan and Allen, 2004.

Our laboratory is involved in a number of studies related to these general observations. The following work highlights examples of the kinds of work the VAN lab does in this area.

We are attempting to determine whether prefrontal EEG asymmetries function as 1) episode markers that simply characterize the presence or absence of affective disorders, 2) liability markers that characterize persons with affective disorders as well as healthy persons at risk for affective disorders, or 3) genetic markers that characterize persons with a genetic risk for affective disorders.

We are interested in characterizing the interaction between frontal EEG asymmetries and environmental stress. Examples of this include…

  • understanding how prefrontal EEG asymmetries interact with social processes in determining emotional and academic adjustment to the first year of college.
  • identifying the role of prefrontal asymmetries in the development of learned helplessness. For example, when faced with uncontrollable and repeated failures to achieve goals, individuals can begin to lose motivation for other activities, begin to feel hopeless and experience an increased likelihood of making mistakes when coping with problems that are in fact controllable. We are investigating the ways in which patterns of EEG activity over the frontal cortex both track and interact with this process.
  • learning how prefrontal EEG asymmetries interact with ordinary daily events to produce affective responses.
  • attempting to ascertain the degree to which neural processes indexed by prefrontal EEG asymmetries actually mediate relationships between environmental stress and affective responses.

We are increasingly interested in fundamental questions of prefrontal EEG asymmetry and Affective Style–the ways with which individuals typically respond to various classes of affective stimuli. For this work, we are measuring EEG and various personality inventories. Most recently, we have begun measuring frontal EEG asymmetry and affective temperament in infants.

We have long worked toward solving long standing methodological issues in the measurement of frontal EEG asymmetry, such as the determination of optimal reference schemes, the measurement of prefrontal asymmetries in real-time emotional responding, and the determination of optimal measurement conditions for affectively meaningful EEG (e.g., the degree to which such asymmetries best measured under traditional “resting” conditions as opposed to experimentally induced emotional challenges that elicit emotion regulation capabilities.)