Our research is organized around the following themes:

Affective stress-buffering

Positive emotions not only feel good: They can also do good. For example, the experience of simple pleasures such as a sunny day or a good conversation with a friend on a regular basis can act as an antidote to stress. By contrast, if humans never experience positive events, stress levels can easily escalate, which can lead to detrimental effects for physical and mental health when stress becomes chronic. In our lab, we investigate stress responses and recovery at multiple timescales. We also use physiological, neuroimaging, and pharmacological methods to investigate how and when positive affective states buffer stress. In particular, we study how the release of endorphins (the body’s natural opioids) modulates cognition, and how the opioid system mediates positive experiences and resilience. This work is done in close collaboration with researchers from the Social Resilience and Security program that partially funds this line of research. Want to learn more? Check out our recent review on this topic.

Affect and cognitive control

Cognitive control enables humans to keep focused on relevant information and to reduce the influence of distracting information. We investigate how affective states influence the efficiency of cognitive control in paradigms such as the Stroop task. Building on the work started in Henk’s PhD, we are interested in the intricate link between aversive emotions and dynamic adaptations in cognitive control and how hedonic affective states counteract these adaptations. For example, using measures of facial EMG, we observed that the frowning muscle can be used to index the aversive response to difficult trials and errors. Using neuroimaging, we have studied a neural mechanism that involves interactions between the cingulate cortex and hedonic hotspots in subcortical reward circuits. More recently, we have identified the role of opioid modulation in cognitive control. We also study the affective regulation of cognitive control in psychiatric disorders, such as depression. An integrative review of this line of research Henk started during his PhD can be found here. Also, check out our more recent review on the role of the opioid system in cognitive control.

Effort and fatigue

This line of research focuses on the bidirectional relationships between physical effort and cognitive effort. For example, we investigate how motivation, perceived difficulty, stress and self-control relate to cardiovascular changes associated with effort mobilization. And we investigate how physical effort and body posture alters fatigue and cognitive functioning.

Hedonic compensation

People pay less and less attention to their meals and often eat while watching TV, while driving, or while monitoring their computers. At the same time, foods and drinks have become sweeter, saltier, and fatter over the past decades. In this collaborative research project with dr. Lotte van Dillen, prof. Wilhelm Hofmann and dr. Floor van Meer, we argue that these are not independent trends. Engaging in activities requires mental capacity. This capacity is limited, leaving less room for processing of sensory information such as taste. We posit that mental load, induced by concurrent tasks or concerns, interferes with reward processing from consumption. Because people strive to obtain pleasure from the goods they consume, they employ compensatory behaviors to up-regulate hedonic value. We advance a new framework to understand this phenomenon, which we label hedonic compensation.

Methodological innovation

We like to develop and share new tools to advance psychological science. Please see our Open Science page to learn more about tools we have shared with the scientific community, such as The E-Primer, the first introduction book to E-Prime. We also built the QRTEngine, which could be used to develop online reaction time experiments using the survey program Qualtrics. We are currently also developing a new open course on programming psychological experiments in OpenSesame and python. Stay tuned for updates on this page.