Robert W. Levenson on Unraveling Emotional Mysteries

Emotion, physiology, and the interaction between them enthrall APS Past President Robert W. Levenson. A 2013 APS Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement and 2014 APS William James Fellow Award recipient, Levenson will deliver an award address, “Unraveling Emotional Mysteries: Insights From Studies of Couples, Cultures, Aging, and Patients,” at the 26th APS Annual Convention in San Francisco, May 22–25, 2014.

Levenson’s current research program includes a 20-year longitudinal study focused on how couples in first marriages relate to each other through middle and old age. In addition to achieving a better understanding of emotions and aging, Levenson hopes to pinpoint factors that contribute to couples’ ability to successfully navigate transitions in later life. In another area of his research, Levenson is investigating emotional and biological changes associated with neurodegenerative conditions such as frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

In an interview with psychological scientist June Gruber for Yale University’s “Experts in Emotion” series, Levenson shares his fascination with the toll that dementia takes not only on cognitive functioning but also on emotional health, producing symptoms very similar to those seen in psychiatric patients.

“There is this whole set of neurodegenerative diseases that actually are like a silver bullet into the heart of our emotional functioning,” Levenson says.

Levenson thinks that these symptoms are caused in part by a stunted ability to experience visceral elements of emotion (e.g., butterflies in the stomach, somatic tensions) as a result of damage to specific brain circuits in dementia patients. These visceral sensations normally help guide behavior in adaptive, socially appropriate directions; without them behavior can become more maladaptive and inappropriate.

For more on Levenson’s work and to hear his advice for young psychological scientists, watch the interview at www.psychologicalscience.org/Levenson-interview.

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