Our emotions and motivations have profound influences on our thoughts and actions. In the MAC lab, we seek to characterize the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms by which these influences take effect on cognition, with a particular focus on cognitive control and episodic memory. In our studies, we have investigated cognitive control and memory processes separately as well as in interaction with one another, taking the view that these processes interact and work in concert to support adaptive human behavior.

We use a variety of tools and methods to investigate our research questions, including cognitive tasks, psychophysiological measures, pupillometry, functional neuroimaging (fMRI), video analysis of behavior, individual differences measures, and survey measures. Our research is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

How does motivation adaptively shape cognition?

Rewards and punishments impact task performance and learning. Often, incentives improve performance, but not always – for example, we might “choke under pressure” when the stakes are high. Our research program investigates the mechanisms by which motivational manipulations lead to changes in task performance and the timecourses by which these mechanisms unfold.

Can affective and motivational influences on cognition be separated?

 While reward pursuit might involve the subjective experience of pleasure, the two constructs are not interchangeable. Assays in rodent models have demonstrated that affective ‘liking’ and motivational ‘wanting’ are neurally separable, yet potentially distinct influences on human cognition remain to be well-characterized. We have conducted studies exploring the dissociability of positive affect and reward incentive influences on cognitive control with the goal of characterizing in more fine-grained detail how these influences might promote adaptive performance.

How do positive and negative motivational influences on cognition differ?

 Approach and avoidance behaviors both play critical roles in survival, yet their motivating goals and the psychological and neural modes that they engender can be very different. We are interested in characterizing how cognitive performance and encoded memory representations differ as a function of positive versus negative motivational context and how these differences can be understood as adaptive.

What is the role of individual differences?

 Individual variation plays an important role in dictating the outcomes of affect- and motivation-cognition interactions. For example, highly reward-responsive individuals might react more strongly to an incentive manipulation, leading to a stronger effect of the incentive on performance. We incorporate measures of individual differences, such as personality and cognitive capacity, into our studies to better characterize observed variability in cognitive and behavioral outcomes and potential underlying mechanisms.

How does motivated cognition occur in naturalistic or real-life environments?

Much of what we know about the mechanisms of motivated cognitive control and memory is derived from structured laboratory studies. However, we live in a complex world. Our lab is interested in developing novel paradigms to characterize affect- and motivation-cognition interactions in naturalistic environments. This approach allows us to jointly investigate the extent to which predictions from the laboratory replicate with more complex settings and behaviors, and to develop testable new hypotheses to bring back to the lab.

Our investigations of motivated cognition “in the wild” have included characterization of real-life exploration and memory encoding under different motivational contexts in an art exhibit, as well as examining autobiographical memory representations for the 2016 American election night as a function of affective valence and surprise.