It may seem that in our day-to-day lives, our emotions are simply something that we experience. We do not have control over the feelings that we feel. However, in the Brain, Emotion, and Behavior Lab run by Heather Urry, PhD, the use of psychological tactics in emotion regulation is being explored. Emotion regulation is the ability of people to manage the intensity, length, and type of their emotions. Heather Urry, who received her PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Arizona, first became interested in emotion regulation after hearing about the work of a colleague, Cheryl Reminger, PhD. Her work focused on emotion regulation in older adults, which prompted Dr. Urry’s interest in that area of research. Now, in the Brain, Emotion, and Behavior Lab, Dr. Urry collects a wide variety of physiological data and subjective, qualitative data on her participants’ experiences during her experiments to see how using cognitive strategies may modulate a person’s emotional response.
According to Dr. Urry, there are several physiological changes that occur when you encounter emotionally-charged stimuli. For example, your palms may sweat, your heart quickens, and your respiration increases. Measuring these physiological changes can be very helpful in assessing a quantitative impact of an emotional experience on a person. While Dr. Urry’s lab also uses individual recollections of her subjects to gain qualitative reports of their emotions, physiological testing provides two unique advantages: the first is that people don’t always have introspective access. People may not always be aware that their heart rate is elevated, or that they have increased sweat on their palms, so being able to objectively measure this gives the researchers a more accurate gauge of the magnitude of the person’s emotional response. The second advantage is that people are concerned about their outward appearances, which distort what they report to the researcher about their own emotions.
So how are these physiological signs used to measure the impact of cognitive strategies? The typical experiment in Dr. Urry’s lab follows this design. Subjects are shown emotionally charged stimuli (typically these stimuli are unpleasant, often they areunpleasant images), and the physiological changes they experience after experiencing the stimuli are recorded. Then, the subjects are instructed to apply a certain kind of psychological emotion regulation strategy. Finally, the stimuli is applied again, the subject applies their emotion regulation strategy, and the physiological data from before and after the strategy is compared. This is a good quantitative measure of how much psychological approaches diminish the person’s physiological response. The figure on the right shows data collected in one of Dr. Urry’s experiments on the regulation of negative emotion by ending emotion-eliciting situations.
Data from Dr. Urry’s experiment, titled: Cut! That’s a wrap: regulating negative emotion by ending emotion-eliciting situations
FIGURE 3. Differences in reasons people provide for pressing the spacebar are reported separately for negative and neutral pictures, with either low or high arousal. People report being more upset by the high-arousal negative pictures, and more bored by the low-arousal both negative and neutral pictures. Error bars reflect +/- 1 SEM.
Another method that Dr. Urry utilizes in her lab to track emotion and emotion regulation is an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine. fMRI acts as an indirect measure of neural activity by measuring changes in blood oxygenation in the brain (Neurons need oxygen to function, so it can be used to indirectly point to increased neural activity). fMRI has good spatial resolution, so it is helpful in finding which parts of the brain are most active after emotion-inducing stimuli. Although experiments in the fMRI must be modified so that they can be done while the subject is in the machine, these experiments follow a similar structure to the ones previously explained. Two areas of the brain that are specifically interesting in terms of emotion and emotion regulation are the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is implicated in many processes, mostly with negative emotions but also some positive. It contains many nuclei that are important to activate physiological signs. The prefrontal cortex is important in working memory, planning, and selection of responses. This is important for emotion regulation because in order to think differently about what you are seeing, you must hold the goal of feeling better in your mind and your goal for your emotional end state (which utilizes working memory) and how to do that (this requires planning and selection of your response).
According to Dr. Urry, “If we can understand what brain regions are involved in emotion regulation and how they are connected, it could have important pharmacological implications”. A key implication for Dr. Urry’s research is its applications clinically. The use of psychological restructuring in emotion regulation could be very helpful in cognitive-behavioral therapy for individuals with anxiety or depression. Additionally, a better understanding of these brain structures could help to identify therapeutic agents for psychiatric medication.