Stony Brook University
What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on how we utilize emotional information to guide our attention and perception, and how we use cognitive strategies to remain goal-focused in the face of emotional distractors. Most studies examining prioritization of emotional stimuli have focused on how we respond faster and more accurately to emotional stimuli. However, prior to stimulus presentation, “top-down” factors like expectation and anticipatory attention can bias perceptual and attentional processes. My research focuses on the often neglected role of expectation and anticipatory attention in prioritization of emotional stimuli both in the visual and olfactory modalities. Combining behavioral and functional MRI (fMRI) techniques, I am examining the role of frontoparietal brain regions (and their interaction with limbic regions) in encoding expectations and integrating top-down spatial and emotional information to guide attention towards the salient targets. I am also exploring these emotion-cognition interactions from the standpoint of individual differences, focusing primarily on anxiety and the schizophrenia spectrum.
What drew you to this line of research and why is it exciting to you?
I have always been intrigued by why emotions get such a bad rap. Most western and eastern schools of philosophy regard emotions as an obstacle to rational thought, and emphasize liberating the mind of feelings and emotions that represent an attachment to the material world. I was surprised to see variations of these viewpoints seep into the affective neuroscience literature which has, at times, advocated a clear divide between emotion and cognition and focused on the relatively “automatic” ways that emotion can capture attention and distort perception. In real life, we use emotional information voluntarily to detect sources of potential threat or reward in a variety of settings, for example, when looking for cars while crossing a street or for a restaurant when hungry. Hence I decided to focus my research on a more voluntary role wherein emotional information is strategically utilized to guide perception and attention. I am excited about this line of research because I believe that not only will this work contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of normal emotion-attention interactions, but also to our understanding of the development and maintenance of anxiety. In general, I believe that mapping the neural circuitry supporting emotion-cognition interactions will help us understand emotional disorders like anxiety and depression, as well as typically “cognitive” disorders like schizophrenia.
Who were/are your mentors or scientific influences?
My first scientific influence came from my father who exposed me to the mysteries of science, specifically, the brain, and the value of research very early in my life. However, I would not have been able to channel my scientific curiosity effectively had it not been for the mentorship of Manas Mandal, my undergraduate research advisor in India. Not only did he provide me the opportunity to conduct research in psychology, which at the time was scarce in India, but also introduced me to emotion research. In graduate school I was fortunate to have outstanding mentors like Greg Miller and Wendy Heller, who taught me to question everything I read and to think creatively. Additionally, Greg Miller taught me how to think about my research in a programmatic manner, to focus on both the process and outcome of research, and to push myself to acquire skills relevant to my research, no matter how hard they seemed. My postdoctoral mentor Marsel Mesulam taught me about brain organization and to think about the potential and the limits of the brain while asking questions that are psychological in nature. Jay Gottfried introduced me to olfaction, an underappreciated modality when it comes to studying emotions and emotion-cognition interactions. Finally, my work has also been influenced by several collaborators and colleagues; in particular, Tobias Egner and Christina Zelano, from whom I learned a lot about basic predictive coding mechanisms in perception, ideas that I am now applying to my work in emotion.
What’s your future research agenda?
In the future, I plan to extend my line of research to investigate overlapping and distinct neural mechanisms involved in top-down and bottom-up modulation of attention and perception by emotional information, as well as how the two interact. A major aim for me is to extend experimental protocols developed from my basic science program to research assessing emotion/cognition interactions in anxiety and the schizophrenia spectrum, with the eventual goal of developing a strong program of translational research in this area. Due to ‘threat schemas’, anxiety may be associated with anticipatory biasing towards threat-related material. In contrast, the attentional system in anxiety maybe especially sensitive to involuntary capture by threat information. I intend to examine the interaction of these automatic and strategic emotion-related processes using both fMRI and more time-sensitive measures like evoked response potentials (ERPs). In my research, I intend to continue using both visual and olfactory modalities due to the unique window each provides into emotional processing. I also plan to examine how enhancing or inhibiting olfactory representations can impact subsequent taste processing, as well the implications for eating behaviors.
What publication are you most proud of?
Mohanty, A., Monti, J., Egner, T. E., & Mesulam, M-M. (2009). Search for a threatening target triggers limbic guidance of spatial attention. Journal of Neuroscience, 29, 10563–10572.
This publication demonstrated that emotional information can guide attention endogenously, and demonstrated the frontoparietal and limbic regions that mediate this guidance. Furthermore, this publication helped me obtain a better understanding of how exactly to study anticipatory biasing processes in emotion research.