Psychology That Spans Boundaries

Some of the most interesting and meaningful research in psychological science spans the boundaries of disciplines. During her term as APS President, Susan T. Fiske highlighted cross-disciplinary work in the Observer Presidential Columns. “Psychology That Spans Boundaries” was also the focus of Fiske’s Presidential Symposium at the APS Annual Convention in Atlanta.

“This theme comes out of my own experiences and beliefs,” Fiske said, “having received a degree in the social relations department that was explicitly interdisciplinary, having come into the field when social cognition was first coming together in the field, and having developed continuing interest in social and cultural psychology and in social and neuroscience combinations.”

The Presidential Symposium featured presentations by three distinguished researchers: Shelley Taylor, University of California, Los Angeles; Daniel Schacter, Harvard University; and Robert Levenson, University of California, Berkeley.

Taylor, an APS Fellow and Charter Member, is a leading researcher in social cognition and in stress, coping, and disease processes. She is widely recognized for her work on positive illusions and their value to coping in life, including slowing the course of HIV infection.

“Psychological theories have informed health research in ways that have kept the field of health psychology from simply being an application of psychology to health,” Taylor said. “The opportunity to test basic theories in these real world venues has in turn informed social psychological theories in ways that have expanded the parameters of those theories.”

Using her “positive illusions” model, Taylor illustrated how psychological science has improved health outcomes. According to the model, self-enhancement, an illusion of control, and unrealistic optimism are characteristics of normal human thought. These views of one’s self, the world, and the future are traditionally only thought to have to do with an individual’s mental health, but Taylor and other researchers wondered if positive beliefs would foster physical health as well.

Taylor and her colleagues used HIV as a disease model to test their hypothesis that positive beliefs would affect the course of the disease in a patient. HIV is an effective disease model to study because of the precise measures available to track even small changes in disease status via numbers of CD-4T helper cells and viral load. This allowed the investigators to make precise correlations between psychological and health variables and changes in HIV numbers.

“At the time the data were initially collected, AIDS was virtually always a fatal disorder,” Taylor said. “So we began by developing a measure of AIDS-specific optimism, which assessed, among other issues, whether these men believed that they could survive AIDS and hold it at bay indefinitely.”

The survival analysis showed that the men who scored high on Taylor’s measure of AIDS-specific optimism typically died nine months later than those with more realistic attitudes towards their survival. According to Taylor, this was “the first hard evidence that positive beliefs could actually affect disease course.”

Subsequent studies confirmed the hypothesis that optimism seemed to act as protection against the rate of disease progression. Even when other variables such as demographics, age, and education level were controlled, Taylor said “the relation between AIDS-specific optimism and course of disease remained significant.”

“I would suggest that positive illusions, such as self-enhancement, can foster health and retard the progression of disease,” Taylor said. “They appear to do so at least in part by keeping biological stress responses at low levels. Psychological theories have great promise for informing the relations between mental and physical health.”

Daniel Schacter, an APS Fellow and Charter Member, studies psychological and biological aspects of human memory and amnesia.

“The cognitive neuroscience perspective is by definition a kind of cross-cutting approach involving the perspectives of cognitive psychology on the one hand and neuroscience on the other,” Schacter said. “Neuroscience itself can be subdivided into neuropsychological perspectives, observations of brain damaged patients, and more recently, neuroimaging techniques.” Schacter’s presentation focused on the use of imaging technology, specifically fMRI, to study the memory illusions of transience and misattribution.

Transience, “the fact that memory, all the things being equal, tends to become decreasingly accessible over time,” has many sources in memory, Schacter said. Poor encoding, the possibility of passive decay of information over time, and interference from prior and subsequent learning “contribute in various ways to transience.”

Using fMRI, Schacter said “we are hoping to make inferences about variations in the neuronal activity and how they’re related to cognitive activity.” Neuronal activity cannot be measured directly, so Schacter said it is examined indirectly by measuring hemodynamic responses, variations in level of blood oxygenation level, assumed to be correlated with neuronal activity.

“One thing cognitive psychologists have established really beyond any doubt is that the nature of encoding operations applied to incoming information has a very large effect on the subsequent transience, if you will, of that information,” Schacter said.

In one study, researchers attempted to look at the neural basis of a particular aspect of cognitive processing. It is well known that semantic encoding operations generally lead to more robust subsequent memory than do non-semantic encoding operations. In this particular experiment, subjects were in the fMRI scanner but they didn’t know they were in a memory experiment. They were asked to make either semantic or non-semantic judgments about a series of words.

The semantic tasks required participants to judge whether a word referred to an abstract or concrete concept. The non-semantic tasks required them to make a judgment about whether the word was in upper or lower case. The results confirmed the expected memory advantage of semantic over non-semantic encoding. Follow-up studies confirmed that brain activity at encoding is related to remembering and forgetting.

“I think most people working in the field would be very comfortable in saying that for verbal memory tasks, activation in the lower left frontal lobe and in either parahippocample gyres or the nearby hippocampus, which, of course has long been kind of the gold standard in brain region and memory research,” Schacter said. “That activation in these regions at the time of encoding gives us some clue that the subjects are likely to remember the event later on, and remember with a lot of confidence, remember it in some detail.”

The phenomenon of illusory truth, also known as the illusory truth factor, Schacter said is an example of misattribution, which is the tendency to believe previously encountered information to be true, whether that information is true or false.

“People tend to judge the truth of old statements as being greater than that of novel statements, just for having been exposed to those statements,” he said. “There’s kind of a bias, if you will, to call a familiar item true, and that results in people incorrectly judging statements that are false as true.”

Schacter said in one study that used imaging data to examine familiarity versus recollection in the illusory truth effect, researchers sought to identify encoding activations associated with the successful suppression of illusory truth. In the study, participants were presented with true or false trivia questions, such as: “It’s false that it takes four hours to hard-boil an ostrich egg.” (Answer: It actually takes six.)

Participants were later given these same true and false statements from the previous phase of the experiment. Subjects were asked to judge whether these statements were in fact true, false, or neutral. The task sought to identify whether or not an item, initially cued as “false,” would be later judged “true” by the subjects because of their familiarity with the statement.

“If suppressing the illusory truth effect requires recollection, it’s been argued, then the cued false, judged false items should be associated with activations at the time of encoding,” Schacter said.

The fMRI data study confirmed the hypothesis that specific regions of the brain, the hippocampus and the inferior frontal gyres, show activation at encoding.

“For the future, what I’d like to focus on mainly is misattribution and move out into some other areas of memory illusion,” Schacter said. “Suggestibility is really totally unlooked at from a cognitive neuroscience point of view.”

Levenson, who is the current APS President-Elect, is a researcher in the behavioral neuroscience, clinical science, developmental, and social personality programs at Berkeley. Also an APS Fellow and Charter Member, Levenson is director of the Institute for Personality and Social Research, and he directs the pre-doctoral training consortium on affective science, which is an NIMH-funding multidisciplinary training program.

“Psychology that expands boundaries, the topic of this panel, has the advantage of producing unique research opportunities and unique training opportunities,” Levenson said. “Many of my students now are getting really unique opportunities to learn about the brain and about quantifying neural loss in the brain.”

According to Levenson, the contributions from neurology to psychological research include subjective experience and perspectives on functional neuroanatomy, experience working with patients, expertise in interpretation, particularly of structural imaging, and the ability to use pharmocalogic interventions. Levenson discussed his cross-disciplinary work in the area of frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD), a family of often misdiagnosed degenerative diseases. About 15 percent of all dementias are in this family. He noted that this disease moves very quickly, striking most patients in their 50s and targeting areas of the brain critical for emotional functioning, the amygdala, the insula, and the temporal lobe. The average survival time is about five years after diagnosis.

According to Levenson, while memory and other forms of cognition are relatively spared, patients with this disease first experience changes in emotional behavior, personality, and the way they interact with others. Typically these patients end up in a psychiatrist’s or clinical psychologist’s office and are medicated for depression and schizophrenia. Brain images of the amygdala reveal a “massive” tissue loss in areas thought to be critical for emotional functioning.

“In this research collaboration,” Levenson said, “we’re interested in three things: Can we use our psychological science to improve the early detection and differential diagnosis of a disorder that is often missed or misdiagnosed? Can we link neural loss in specific brain regions with specific changes in emotion, socioemotional behavior and personality? And can we identify the emotional correlates of genetic risk for FTLD?”

This disorder runs in families, offering researchers good indicators of those who may be genetically at risk long before the disease appears and allowing comparisons among family members who have and don’t have various indications of disease.

“We measure some other things that enable us to have the necessary controls, for after all these are people whose brains are deteriorating and we need to know what they can actually do,” he said.

Research shows that study participants with FTLD understand what is going on around them. On a mental status exam where the top score is 30, Levenson said the age-matched controls score 29 and patients with the disease score 28.

“Their brains are really working well in a lot of areas,” Levenson said. “Their memories are intact; their comprehension’s intact. But the emotional part of the brain is really taking this early hit.”

In a typical experiment using college students, a subject hears a sudden, unexpected loud noise. The initial reflex reaction is that the person will jump, followed by some post-startle processing, and then the person will have a reaction to being startled by this non-threatening cue, such as a laugh or giggle.

When a person who has a form of FTLD that affects primarily the left side of the brain and produces extreme language problems, there is a reflex response, followed by the processing, but that’s it. There is no post-processing reaction.

“Psychological science may contribute to the diagnosis, treatment and understanding of a number of devastating neurodegenerative disorders,” Levenson said. “We’re hopeful at the end of this research we can give neurologists a set of tools that will be useful at the bedside for recognizing these disorders, and also helpful for psychiatrists and psychologists who tend to misdiagnose these patients, telling them what to look for and ways to measure it, in ways that’ll help these people for whatever years they have left to have as rich lives as possible.”

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