In the lab


When studying human behavior, a traditional approach is to ask individuals to visit a research laboratory (lab) and complete various kinds of computer tasks, engage in interpersonal interactions, and/or answer various kinds of questions.  A research lab allows us to carefully construct a controlled environment where can can measure behavior, thought, and emotion with greater precision than would be possible in the ever changing complex ‘real world’ we inhabit in everyday life.  
Our lab is located on the main campus of Columbia University located in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  In a typical lab study, we might collect any of three kinds of measures.  The first involves completing questionnaires that are used to learn out about beliefs, attitudes, and emotions.  The second involves completing computerized tasks where we record responses or choices you might make when presented with images, movies, sounds, texts and so on.  The third type of measure assesses physiology - how being presented with particular stimuli or making specific decisions influences your heart rate, skin conductance (sweating on your skin), or hormone (e.g. cortisol) levels. Together, these various kinds of measures tell us about how you are responding emotionally to, and thinking about, life events.


In the scanner


Collecting behavioral and physiological data in the lab allows us to answer many questions about when and how we act, think and feel, but we need other techniques to tell us about how your brain actually creates the infinite variety of human behaviors and experiences.  Here, we rely on Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI for short), a technique developed in the early 1990’s for studying brain structure and function.  MRI is a noninvasive technique that does not involve (ionizing) radiation of any kind, and instead relies on (powerful) magnets and radiowaves.  Structural MRI scans allow us to ‘take pictures’ of what your brain looks like, so we can see the size and shapes of its parts and how they are connected to one another. Functional MRI (known as fMRI) allows us to ‘take pictures’ of patterns of blood flow in your brain. At any given moment, the neurons in the parts of your brain responsible for your specific thoughts, feelings or actions become more ‘active.’  To support this activity, blood flows to these neurons to provide them ‘food’ in the form of oxygen and sugar.   In this way, measuring changes in blood flow across the brain allows us to map the geography of thoughts and feelings.   
As a research participant in a brain imaging study you would lie in an MRI scanner while your brain processes the stimuli presented to you (be they images, text, sounds, videos, etc).  With current technology, the scanner records several hundred images of your brain within a few minutes.  Later analysis of these images help us understand how the brain supports the particular kinds of thoughts, actions and emotions you experience while in the scanner.  Here, we also collect behaviors (e.g. simple choices or ratings) made while in the scanner to help us understand the meaning of patterns of brain activity.


In the World

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While the lab and scanner provide us with carefully controlled environments for studying behavior that eliminate much of the complexity and ‘noise’ of everyday life, sometimes that complexity is exactly what we want to study.  Indeed, the simplified versions of emotional and social events we study in the lab - by design - are not perfectly representative of the kinds of things we encounter in our day-to-day lives.
To study people, “in the wild,” we take advantage of recent technological inventions, such as Facebook, Twitter, and their related data mining tools, that allow anonymized access to human behavior in the face of emotionally relevant life events. Using these resources, we collect data from online platforms to determine how people around the country react to both shared events of significance for us all (like 9/11), as well as events having personal meaning for single individuals (like the idiosyncratic aspects of our daily lives the cause stress or worry).
To study behavior, “in the wild,” we also take advantage of the fact that many of us use smartphones in our daily lives.  Using a technique called Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), we can ask participants to install an app on their phone, which will then ‘ping’ them at one or more times throughout the day to respond to simple questions about what they are doing, how they are feeling, and the like.  This helps us understand the relationships between specific life events and the thoughts, feelings and actions they elicit.