Our research is organized around the following themes:
Positive emotions not only bring pleasure but also have a positive impact. For instance, regularly experiencing simple joys like a sunny day or a pleasant conversation with a friend can act as a remedy for stress. On the other hand, the absence of positive events can easily escalate stress levels, leading to harmful effects on both physical and mental health when stress becomes chronic. In our laboratory, we focus on investigating stress responses and recovery across different timeframes. We employ various methods, including physiological, neuroimaging, and pharmacological techniques, to explore how and when positive emotional states can alleviate stress. Specifically, we examine how the release of endorphins, the body’s natural opioids, influences cognition and how the opioid system facilitates positive experiences and resilience. Additionally, we are intrigued by the connection between positive emotions (hedonia) and the sense of leading a meaningful life (eudaimonia). This research is conducted in collaboration with researchers from the Social Resilience and Security program which provides partial funding for this line of inquiry. If you would like to delve deeper into this topic, feel free to explore our recent review.
Affect and cognitive control
Cognitive control enables humans to keep focused on relevant information and to reduce the influence of distracting information. We investigate the dynamic interplay between affective states and cognitive-control processes. 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 (e.g. Stroop conflicts) 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.
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 have also developed open course material on programming psychological experiments in OpenSesame and Python (see also this twitter thread).
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 alter arousal, fatigue, and cognitive functioning.
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 a collaborative research team led by dr. Lotte van Dillen and prof. Wilhelm Hofmann, 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.