When Florin Dolcos arrived at the University of Illinois earlier this year, he brought along a healthy research line investigating the neural mechanisms underlying emotion-cognition interactions. Dolcos plans to not only continue but expand on those topics as a full-time member of the Beckman Institute’s Cognitive Neuroscience group.
Dolcos came to Illinois from the University of Alberta, Canada, where he got his first faculty position in the Department of Psychiatry, and where he earned a Ph.D. that included extensive field work and collaborations at Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Dolcos’s research includes studying topics such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sleep deprivation, social cognition, and depression – with one underlying theme.
“My main research interest is in emotion-cognition interactions, with a focus on the associated neural correlates as studied with brain imaging tools,” Dolcos said.
Dolcos, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Illinois, looks at how emotion can impact cognitive processes such as memory and attention, and vice versa, and investigates the neural mechanisms involved in that interaction. He studies topics such as sleep deprivation because of the insight they can provide into emotion-cognition interaction.
“People want to stay focused on something but they might get distracted by emotional stimuli or thoughts,” Dolcos said. “These are the two main directions in my research, looking at how emotion enhances cognition on the one hand and how it could also impair cognition on the other hand.
“You might see differences in people with PTSD or even within larger healthy populations some individuals might be more marked by an emotional event than others. The idea is to see what the neural mechanisms are and see whether variation in individual responses might be linked to differential vulnerability to clinical conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, or to depression or anxiety, if they are exposed to extremely challenging emotional situations. One aspect where this interaction between emotion and cognition is pushed to diverge is sleep deprivation.”
Dolcos said the topic of sleep deprivation is a natural one to study for his research interests.
“You get tired, it’s more difficult to stay focused; this is the cognitive aspect,” he said. “But at the same time you might also expect with sleep deprivation people get more nervous, or impatient, or might more easily lose their temper. That’s the emotional component. So you see the two components that are part of my research, looking at how emotion and cognition might interact.” (A paper reporting findings concerning the impact of sleep deprivation on the neural correlates of emotion-cognition interactions was recently published in the journal Sleep)
Dolcos wants to do more on this research line at Beckman, but he can say this about his findings so far: “The message is rather simple: the outcome of sleep deprivation doesn’t solely depend on what happens to one or the other of the two systems, the cognitive or the more affective; it’s the interaction between them.”
Dolcos also has done studies of soldiers returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder and people with depression, as well as studies of healthy populations, in order to gain insight into emotion-cognition interactions. (A paper reporting findings concerning the neural correlates of emotion-cognition interactions in war veterans with PTSD was recently published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research and can be viewed on Dolcos's website).
“Affective-cognitive interactions are something we see every day,” Dolcos said. “Even now I’m speaking faster and don’t say all of my words because I want to say everything at once. Or you could be in a bad mood and you don’t really have motivation to do things; virtually everything could be affected cognitively by the fact that you may be in a bad mood on a particular day. The influence of a bad mood on behavior is brought to an extreme in depression, and hence understanding alterations in emotion-cognition interactions in depressed patients is also critical. (Another paper reporting findings concerning the neural correlates of emotion processing in depression and changes with therapeutic intervention was also recently published and can be viewed on Dolcos's website).
“Emotion is part of our daily lives. If it’s something exciting, we’re going to remember that better. Memory is a cognitive process; something that makes an event exciting, either positively or negatively, is going to influence the memory for that event. At the same time emotions can be distracting and this can influence different aspects of cognitive tasks.”
As examples in which emotion can affect decision-making, Dolcos mentioned grocery shopping while hungry and drivers who become distracted by an accident and may cause another accident. Some of these everyday situations include time-honored admonitions about not letting our emotions affect our performance of a task performance or how we react to certain situations.
“Don’t go shopping when you’re hungry. Sleep on that. Don’t decide now, count to 10. All of these have behind them how emotion interacts with cognition,” he said. “Count to 10 is a typical example of where you can regulate or control your emotional processing. On the other hand, it’s not only the impact of emotion on cognition, but it’s also the impact of cognition on emotion.
“Emotion-cognition interactions are also important in the way we interact with other people. It does not take much to decide whether seeing a smiley or a frowned face makes you want to approach or avoid a person.” (A paper reporting findings concerning the neural correlates of the impact of anxiety-inducing social stimuli -- angry faces -- just appeared in PLoS One, and is part of a new research direction in the Dolcos Lab: the investigation of emotion-cognition interactions in social contexts.)
The aspects of the emotion-cognitive interactions Dolcos studies can also apply to real life situations found at a university.
“Within healthy behavior sleep deprivation is also pushing the limits in terms of how the balance between emotion and cognition might be influenced,” he said. “With increased tiredness both of these systems are influenced.
“They are also part of the daily life in many professions, including in academics,” he added with a laugh.
This article is part of the Winter 2011 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.