While emotions are essential human experiences, ‘there are still a lot of mysteries as to exactly what emotions are and how we can harness them to lead healthier and happier lives
Human emotions are universally experienced but not fully understood. A new initiative at the University of Colorado Boulder aims to tap a wide range of expertise to shed light on “the mysteries of human nature.”
June Gruber, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the CU-Boulder, hints at the appeal of a riveting mystery story.
“Emotions are an essential part of what makes us human. But surprisingly, there are still a lot of mysteries as to exactly what emotions are and how we can harness them to lead healthier and happier lives.”
That quest underlies a new initiative that employs an interdisciplinary approach to understanding emotion, called Colorado Affective Sciences Laboratories (CASL, pronounced “castle”).
Besides drawing attention from departments across the university, it has piqued the interest of multiple scholars in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, and the backgrounds of its co-founders reflect this diversity:
Gruber is a member of the department’s clinical- and social-psychology areas; Professor Leaf Van Boven is in social psychology; and Professor Tor Wager is in cognitive psychology.
CASL’s founders emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary work, not only spanning areas of psychology, but also including other disciplines.
When friends ask me about grad school, I tell them that I finally get to study what I care about. I get to talk to a diverse group of really smart people about a topic I’m really interested in...”
“At the cutting edge of this science are attempts to measure emotion across multiple levels, meaning integrating information from the cellular level all the way up to people’s self-reports about their own well-being,” Gruber says.
“Bringing together interdisciplinary teams is essential to the success of this multi-level work. You need teams of people with specializations in a variety of disciplines like neuroimaging, mental health, language analysis and behavioral observation, working as a team, not just as individuals.”
CASL aims to foster academic dialogue and collaboration among these and other disciplines, even involving academic communities throughout Colorado.
The robust group of CASL’s 60 members (and growing) gives a sense of this range: though composed primarily of psychology students and faculty, fields including philosophy, art, business, marketing, environmental studies and integrative physiology are also represented.
“It seems like this was a critical gap across the university that needed to be filled,” Gruber says.
Affective science is known most basically as the study of human emotion, but those in various areas of psychology approach that study from different, though often overlapping, perspectives.
Clinical psychologists approach affective science with an eye on mental health and psychopathology; affective disorders, emotional regulation and more recently, positive emotion, may be emphasized.
Social psychologists focus on how social experience affects emotion, and on the social function of emotions; there may be an interest in topics such as stereotyping and prejudice as well as cultural or gender differences in emotion.
Cognitive psychologists are concerned with how emotion affects cognition and vice versa; the interplay of affect and cognitive processes such as memory, decision-making, attention and cognitive reappraisal are often examined.
At CU-Boulder, students in all areas of psychology who are interested in CASL and the field of affective science can choose from several existing psychology classes: a large undergraduate class attracting more than 200 students in Human Emotion, taught by Gruber, and three graduate-level classes (Affective Science, taught by Gruber; Emotion and Decision Making, taught by Van Boven; and Affective Neuroscience, taught by Wager).
An additional elective “Brown Bag” class, held during the lunch hour, includes weekly speakers in affective science from major universities such as Yale and Stanford, plus international leaders in the field, and reading groups that expose students to cutting-edge research on human emotion.
Students can also participate in an annual cross-campus conference, Emotion Research Day, a joint venture between CU-Boulder and the University of Denver that includes students and faculty from several fields.
Some broader academic plans are also in the works. The co-founders of CASL are developing a formal graduate-certificate program in affective science and intend to submit a proposal to the university this year.
This would provide students with specialized training to promote their future careers in the field. As part of that program, the CASL team is working on a formal curriculum of the study of human emotions, developing more in-depth courses on both undergraduate and graduate levels.
One of the anticipated courses, Happiness, Psychology and Philosophy, would be taught with two philosophy professors, reflecting CASL’s emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach. Gruber is also working on identifying grant and fellowship funding opportunities for students and their research projects.
The student response to CASL has been strong and positive.
Maggie Tobias, a first-year graduate student in Gruber’s lab, plans to do her own research on the interaction between cognition and emotion, focusing on cognitive bias in relation to positive emotion and psychopathology.
From her perspective, having access to faculty, research and study groups specifically about affective science is a dream come true.
“CASL has been a fantastic experience,” she says.
“When friends ask me about grad school, I tell them that I finally get to study what I care about. I get to talk to a diverse group of really smart people about a topic I’m really interested in. At the CASL Brown Bag, we have really deep discussions with people from different areas and even different departments. There are a lot of insights and new perspectives to be gained from that.”
Gruber notes that the growing interest in affective science is reflected by mass-media attention on the subject, including that of well-respected academic journals.
The National Institute of Mental Health has also endorsed affective science as an important priority in the study of mental illness.
“This underscores how important affective science is,” says Gruber. “The time for CASL is ripe. We believe CU can be at the center of major discoveries in this field and tackle some of the biggest unanswered questions about emotion.”
Alicia Segal is a writer in the CU-Boulder Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.