2010 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Elizabeth A. Kensinger
Boston College

What is the focus of your award-winning research?

My research focuses on how the emotional content of information affects the way we remember it. My laboratory members and I are interested in understanding how emotion changes the subjective phenomenology of memory, the objective accuracy of memory, and the brain mechanisms that support memory. We examine these effects of emotion on young adults’ memories and investigate how the influences of emotion change across the adult lifespan.

We strive to integrate findings from behavioral and neural levels of analysis and from controlled laboratory experiments as well as assessments of memory for “real life” emotional experiences. Our recent studies have measured the accuracy with which people can remember the identity and location of objects such as snakes or spiders within a scene, have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the neural response elicited as Boston College hockey players recall positive and negative events from the hockey season, and have assessed how accurately adults of all ages can remember the 2008 Presidential race.

Our research has revealed that emotional valence (whether an experience is pleasant or unpleasant) influences every phase of memory. Our research also has demonstrated that some of these effects of valence are more affected by aging than others. For example, aging affects how new emotional events are integrated with former ones: Older adults are more likely than younger adults to link a new emotional experience — and particularly a positive one — to past decisions and life events.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

I often attribute my interest in emotion, memory, and aging to interactions that I had with Sue Corkin and with the Alzheimer’s patients we were testing during my initial years of graduate school at MIT. The patients’ caregivers often told me that they were surprised that their loved ones could not remember personally important, highly emotional events. These anecdotes led me to question why we expect emotional memories to be vivid and to wonder whether emotional memories were particularly disrupted by Alzheimer’s disease. These interests lay dormant for a while, but as I talked with Sue about my interests, read more about emotion processing, and learned more about medial temporal-lobe function, I began to see how the study of emotional memory could allow us to understand how different regions of the medial temporal-lobe interact with one another and how those interactions might change the subjective qualities and objective details of a memory.

Although this is the most direct answer, a second and more complete answer would probably start with my first science fair project in the fourth grade…but I will fast-forward to college.

The first factor was the excellent courses that I took at the start of my undergraduate education. In my Freshman fall, I took an elective called “Vision and the Brain,” taught by Ken Nakayama and Patrick Cavanaugh, which ignited my interest in the field of cognitive psychology. Then, I enrolled in Dan Schacter’s course on memory and cognition. By the end of that course, I knew I wanted to major in psychology and to learn more about human memory.

A second factor was my early introduction to research on memory and cognitive aging. I joined Dan Schacter’s laboratory soon after taking his course. Under the guidance of Wilma Koutstaal and Dan, I learned good study design and was taught an array of data analysis techniques, and in the process I became fascinated by the topic of false memory. I was also fortunate to receive a summer internship at the Gerontology Research Center at the National Institute on Aging, working under the tutelage of Robert McCrae and Sue Resnick.

Finally, a third factor was having the good fortune to be at Harvard while Matt Lieberman and Kevin Ochsner were developing their ideas about social cognitive neuroscience. I enrolled in a seminar on Social Cognitive Neuroscience taught by Dan Gilbert and Kevin Ochsner, and that course sparked my interest in thinking about cognitive processes in a broader socio-emotional context. I believe these initial experiences allowed me to have an appreciation for all that could be learned by examining the interactions among emotion, memory, and aging.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

I have benefited from interactions with a large number of researchers, but there are three individuals who stand out for their mentorship: Dan Schacter, Sue Corkin, and Anthony Wagner.

Beyond their contributions to my training, they have been mentors in the truest sense, always taking the time to share their wisdom and to provide advice and constructive feedback. Now that I have the honor of being a mentor to students of my own, I strive to reach the high bar that Dan, Sue, and Anthony set.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

My undergraduate years provided me with a strong research foundation on which I was able to build during graduate school. By the time that I received my PhD, I had familiarity with fMRI and with neuropsychological approaches, which meant that I entered my postdoctoral fellowship, with sufficient tools in my toolbox to allow me to test a large array of hypotheses. During my fellowship I was able to enhance my comfort with those different tools and to become better at integrating the knowledge gained from each of them.

A key component to my success has also come from my interactions with so many fellow scientists who have been willing to share their expertise with me. Although such interactions are important for any researcher, I think they are particularly critical when research spans across traditional areas of inquiry. My research could not build upon findings in the literature on emotion processing, human memory, and cognitive aging were it not for a long list of mentors and collaborators who have helped me think about the best ways to effectively integrate findings from those areas. I trained in dynamic laboratory environments, filled with collaborative and collegial individuals who were excited to share their knowledge. Now, I am privileged to be in a department with colleagues who share an enthusiasm for research and who enjoy sharing ideas and insights. Finally, I am lucky to have the phenomenal Boston area research community at my fingertips, with a plethora of talks to attend and many experts with whom I can consult.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

As a woman in science, I am delighted to receive this award in its inaugural year and to be presented the award by Janet Spence herself, who is a role model for all scientists and for female scientists in particular.

I am also pleased that this award provides me with an opportunity to acknowledge my mentors and to thank my colleagues at Boston College, my laboratory members, and my collaborators. Although this award is given to individuals, the “transformative contributions” it honors have emerged from fruitful collaborations. My debt of gratitude is owed to a group of individuals too long to list: people with whom I have had lengthy conversations about theory and analysis, brainstormed new study designs, acquired and analyzed data, prepared manuscripts, and presented findings at scientific meetings. I view this award as a wonderful recognition of how productive (and fun!) scientific research can be when that collaborative spirit is alive.