J. David Creswell

Carnegie Mellon University, Health and Human Performance Laboratory


What does your research focus on?

My research focuses on how the mind and brain influence our physical health. Much of my work examines basic questions about stress and coping and trying to understand how these factors can be modulated through stress-reduction interventions. In two related lines of research, I am exploring the mechanisms for how self-affirmation and mindfulness meditation reduce stress and improve health outcomes in at-risk stressed patient populations. This work is multimodal and attempts to model how these stress-reduction practices can impact neural stress-regulation pathways in ways that reduce biological stress reactivity and how, over time, these practices can impact physical health in stressed patient populations. More recently, I have been interested in understanding how coping practices can be learned, and I have some new research exploring the unconscious neural mechanisms of learning and decision making.

What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?

Meditation puzzles me. How does a practice of sitting quietly and paying attention to one’s experience translate into health benefits? We know surprisingly little about how the mind and brain influence our bodies — and I’m excited to uncover the underlying mechanisms explaining these links. I also enjoy figuring out ways we can improve the quality of our experience — so that we feel more fulfilled, and live longer with a greater quality of life. Health psychology is a field that explores these issues — as a health psychologist, I can explore the black box of our minds and brains and link these processes to real-world health and performance outcomes.

Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?

My mentors are the sole reason for my initial successes in psychology. I went to UCLA’s Social and Health Psychology program for my PhD training, and I had the opportunity to work with a number of leading health psychology faculty. My training ended up being a bit nontraditional — I initially started at UCLA as a sport psychology graduate student, but things didn’t work out. I was then adopted by some of the health psychology faculty members at UCLA in my second year in graduate school. I feel so grateful to Traci Mann (a young health psychology faculty member at the time), who saw some promise in me and gave me a chance to continue in the PhD program. I ended up working with a lot of faculty members at UCLA — which was pretty amazing. I learned so much from my many mentors — each had unique perspectives and approaches that have informed my work. Traci Mann taught me how to manipulate variables in well-controlled lab studies, Hector Myers showed me how to write grants and gave me opportunities to ask big questions about meditation and health, and Shelley Taylor shared with me her brilliance, discipline, and bravery to tackle important questions. I had other wonderful mentors on projects in graduate school (too many to mention!), and I feel so grateful for the opportunities they provided to test questions that excited me. It’s more than just opportunities, though — my mentors and the health psychology program at UCLA taught me how to think critically. I learned how to develop a program of research, how to be brave and diligent when my work moves into uncharted territory, and how to figure out which questions are important to pursue in my work. I also want to recognize my parents, John and Karen Creswell, who deserve so much credit for shaping me as a person and scientist. They showed me how to be a good person, and they gave me every opportunity to pursue my dreams. Finally, I want to acknowledge my partner Kasey Griffin, who is a brilliant psychological scientist who inspires me every day.

To what do you attribute your success in the science?

I think one reason why I’ve had some initial successes is that I’m good at getting people to work together. I love team science. I learn so much from my students and collaborators, and I love to see them run with ideas and projects. I am just one small piece of each publication — the work reflects the team effort, and I enjoy being a team leader.

What’s your future research agenda?

I’m really excited about the future of psychological science. We have so many new technologies available to us to answer new and old questions. I am most excited about building a broad integrative model of coping and stress regulation — how do we regulate stress? What are the neurobiological pathways of coping and resilience, and what are the limiting conditions? How is coping learned?

Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?

Working at the forefront of science is hard work — but you owe it to yourself to be brave, to be diligent, and to make an impact. You won’t get much immediate feedback as a scientist (your work can take years before it shows up in print!), but it’s so important—your work has the ability to change our culture and make a worldwide impact. So stay with it. Also, I think the process of developing new ideas is very important — make sure to designate time regularly to think about new directions. Write down your ideas, let them sit for weeks, and when you can’t let go of an idea, then it’s time to run an experiment. Track several leading scientific journals and read the newest work that interests you — work at the forefront of science.

What publication you are most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?

I’m always most excited about the paper I’m currently working on! I think the paper I’m most proud of is also the most obscure (least cited!) paper in my body of work. It was a paper exploring the effects of self-affirmation writing in breast cancer survivors — a paper I wrote early in my graduate career that revealed a novel mechanism for expressive writing effects on health. It was an interesting idea that I pursued on a shoestring budget, and it showed me that I could be successful in conducting and disseminating my research.

Creswell, J.D., Lam, S., Stanton, A.S., Taylor, S.E., Bower, J.E., & Sherman, D.K. (2007). Does self-affirmation, cognitive processing, or discovery of meaning explain the cancer-related health benefits of expressive writing?Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin33, 238–250.

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