Although most people who lose a loved one recover from the emotional shock, others continue to grieve intensely for months and years afterward. Our research group is studying mechanisms that may prevent people from overcoming the pain of grief. Studies concern memory functioning and prospection – the capacity to envision one’s future. Other work concerns vocal speech characteristics that may predict emotional processing of grief memories undergoing psychological treatment for complicated grief, and deficits in emotion regulation.
Cognitive Bias Modification
Research on information-processing biases in anxiety disorders has long been a focus of our work. As some work suggests that biases in attention, interpretation, and memory may causally constitute to the maintenance and perhaps the etiology of these syndromes, investigators have increasingly modified cognitive paradigms, converting them into methods for reducing these biases and perhaps helping clients overcome their anxiety disorders. Our lab has been conducting experiments on one form of cognitive bias modification (CBM): attention bias modification (ABM). We have conducted studies on people with subclinical spider phobia and on people with social anxiety. In addition to testing people in our laboratory, we have also put these protocols on smartphones, delivering the ABM intervention remotely.
Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Recent studies on PTSD concern risk and resilience variables in health personnel deployed to Iraq, adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and survivors of the earthquake in Wenchuan, China. In addition to working with people with PTSD per se, we have commenced laboratory studies concerning working memory, and investigating methods of taxing working memory that may attenuate negative emotional memories.
Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)
We are currently studying the cognitive aspects of social anxiety disorder ranging from deficits in Theory of Mind to attentional biases for threat and their correction via computerized Attention Bias Modification (ABM) interventions. We have been testing the efficacy of experimental ABM interventions in our lab, and as a smartphone app.
Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) and OCD spectrum disorders
Our recent studies on OCD span work on pain tolerance, guilt, and moral reasoning. Other studies on body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) tested hypotheses about cognitive mechanisms potentially capable of explaining why these patients believe they are hideous to others, contrary to all evidence.
Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse
Although no longer a major focus of our research, we have conducted studies testing cognitive mechanisms in people reporting recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. The major take-home message of our research is as follows. There appears to be no convincing evidence that people can repress (or dissociate) memories of truly traumatic events that they have encoded. However, some people who experienced childhood sexual molestation in their childhood, but who did not experience the events as traumatic, may forget their abuse for many years, yet recall it upon encountering reminders in adulthood. Interpreting their molestation through the eyes of an adult, they often experience PTSD symptoms. Accordingly, people may forget and “recover” memories of abuse that they did not experience as traumatic at the time of their occurrence. They forget the memories not because they were traumatic and thus “repressed,” but rather because they did not experience them as traumatic at the time they occurred.
Unusual Phenomena: isolated sleep paralysis, reports of unusual recovered memories (e.g., space alien abduction, past lives).
We have also studied unusual phenomena, such as isolated sleep paralysis, and people who report recovered memories of space alien abduction and memories recovered from their previous lives.