The Berkeley Psychophysiology Laboratory
Robert W. Levenson works in the areas of human psychophysiology and affective neuroscience, both of which involve studying the interplay between psychological and physiological processes. Much of his work focuses on the nature of human emotion, in terms of its physiological manifestations, variations in emotion associated with age, gender, culture, and pathology, and the role emotion plays in interpersonal interactions. Dr. Levenson's research group is currently focusing primarily on two major projects: a study of emotion and normal aging and a study of the impact of neurodegenerative diseases on emotional functioning, both supported by grants from the National Institute of Aging.
Emotion and Aging
The centerpiece of this work has been an ongoing longitudinal study of a large sample of long-term first marriages in middle and old age. This work uses an observational methodology in which couples come to the laboratory and engage in naturalistic discussions about important topics related to their relationship. These interactions are studied to determine if there are signs in emotional experience, behavior, language, and physiology that can be used to discriminate between the interactions of couples who are satisfied and dissatisfied with their relationships, to discriminate between couples at different stages of the life span, and to predict what will happen to the level of couples' relationship satisfaction over time. Couples are studied as they progress through prototypical later-life transitions (children leaving home for middle-aged couples, retirement and health changes for older couples), trying to determine what kinds of couples fare well as they cope with these transitions and what kinds of couples fare poorly.
The other focus of this work is to learn about normative changes in emotion that occur with age. Here, emotional reactivity, emotional regulation, and emotional knowledge/empathy are assessed in the laboratory in participants at different ages (cross-sectionally and longitudinally) to determine how human emotions change as we age. Unlike many other aspects of human functioning which show pronounced declines with age (e.g., memory, psychomotor skills), many aspects of emotional functioning appear to be relatively spared as we age, and some even show signs of continuing improvement and positive development in late life. Two new directions in this work examine the sources of individual differences in emotional functioning (focusing on genetic polymorphisms and changes in cognitive abilities) and the consequences of these individual differences for well-being and successful aging.
Emotion in Neurodegenerative Disorders
In these studies, we are examining the ways that emotion (especially reactivity, regulation, and empathy), personality, language, and social behavior (especially marital interaction) are altered in the early stages of organic brain syndromes (frontotemporal dementia, Alzheimer's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and orbitofrontal brain injuries). Of particular interest are those patients who show neural loss in brain areas thought to be critical to emotional functioning. This work builds upon our extensive prior work studying normative emotional processes, which enables us to detect subtle changes in the emotion system that are associated with the onset and course of neuropathology. Patients are studied longitudinally so that changes in the emotional realm can be associated with neural loss in particular brain regions. This research is being conducted in collaboration with a group of neurologists at UCSF and Berkeley and is currently being expanded to include a component concerned with the genetics of these disorders and another concerned with the differential diagnosis of the dementias in clinical practice.
A number of other research projects are also being conducted in Dr. Levenson's laboratory.
Basic Studies of the Physiology of Emotions
In these studies, physiological changes (in both the autonomic nervous system and in the muscles that produce facial expressions) are studied during the emotions of anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Emotions are produced in the laboratory using a number of different methods (including emotional memories, posed emotional facial expressions, emotion-eliciting films, the interactions of couples in committed relationships, and musical selections). This research addresses the question of how these primary emotions differ physiologically, and how physiology reflects variations in emotions as they occur at different intensities, in blended combinations, in complex sequences, and as they ebb and flow over time.
Studies of Emotional Communication and Control
In these studies, more complex aspects of emotion are being examined. These include: (a)emotional language--the words and metaphors people use to convey their feelings and the relationships between emotional language and accompanying expressive and physiological signs of emotion; (b) empathy--the relationships between physiological state and being able to know the feelings being experienced by another person; (c) emotional control--the subjective, behavioral, and physiological consequences of intentionally inhibiting emotion in both young and older subjects; and (d) emotional interaction in gay and lesbian couples--dyadic interactions are being examined to help understand the interplay between gender and gender-roles in committed relationships.
Representative Student Research Projects
Examples of current and recent research projects undertaken by graduate students and postdoctorals working with Dr. Levenson include: (a) empathic accuracy and prosocial behavioral in young, middle-age, and elderly individuals; (b) emotional differences between patients with Alzheimer's and frontotemporal dementias; (c) emotional predictors of marital distress; (d) the impact of neural loss in specific brain regions (e.g., anterior temporal lobes, amygdala) on emotional functioning; (e) pseudobulbar affect (uncontrollable emotional outbursts) in neurological patients; (f) positive emotions and physiological soothing; and (g) emotional abilities and well-being.
Students working with Dr. Levenson typically learn the skills associated with psychophysiological measurement, the use of computers to process and analyze physiological data, the assessment of emotion by analyzing facial muscle movement, and other methods of behavioral coding. In addition to their course work in the Clinical Science Program, his students typically take courses in physiology, neuroanatomy, emotion, and human aging.
Ascher, E.A., Sturm, V.E., Seider, B.H., Holley, S.R., Miller, B.L., & Levenson, R.W. (2010). Relationship satisfaction and emotional language in frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer disease patients and spousal caregivers. Alzheimer Dis Assoc Disord, 24, 49-55. PMCID: 2838197.
Cote, S., Gyurak, A., & Levenson, R.W. (2010). The ability to regulate emotion is associated with greater well-being, income, and socioeconomic status. Emotion, 10, 923-933.
Seider, B.H., Shiota, M.N., Whalen, P., & Levenson, R.W. (2011). Greater sadness reactivity in late life. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 6, 186-194. PMCID: 3073392.
Sze, J.A., Gyurak, A., Yuan, J.W., & Levenson, R.W. (2010). Coherence between emotional experience and physiology: Does body awareness training have an impact? Emotion, 10, 803-814.
Yuan, J.W., McCarthy, M., Holley, S.R., & Levenson, R.W. (2010). Physiological down-regulation and positive emotion in marital interaction. Emotion, 10, 467-474.
Shiota, M.N., & Levenson, R.W. (2009). Effects of aging on experimentally instructed detached reappraisal, positive reappraisal, and emotional behavior suppression. Psychology and Aging, 24,890-900.
Seider, B.H., Hirschberger, G., Nelson, K.L., & Levenson, R.W. (2009). We can work it out: Age differences in relational pronouns, physiology, and behavior in marital conflict. Psychology and Aging, 24, 604-613.
Sturm, V.E., Ascher, E.A., Miller, B.L., & Levenson, R.W. (2008). Diminished self-conscious emotional responding in frontotemporal lobar degeneration patients. Emotion, 8(6), 861-869.
Levenson, R.W., Soto, J., & Pole, N. (2007). Emotion, biology, and culture. In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen (Eds.), Handbook of cultural psychology (pp. 780-796). New York: Guilford Press.
Levenson, R.W., & Miller, B.M. (2007). Loss of cells--loss of self. Frontotemporal lobar degeneration and human emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(6), 289-294.
Shiota, M.N., & Levenson, R.W. (2007). Birds of a feather don't always fly farthest: Similarity in Big Five personality predicts more negative marital satisfaction trajectories in long-term marriages.Psychology and Aging, 22(4), 666-675.
Sturm, V.E., Rosen, H.J., Allison, S., Miller, B.L., & Levenson, R.W. (2006). Self-conscious emotion deficits in frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Brain, 129.
Mauss, I.B., Levenson, R.W., McCarter, L., & Wilhelm, F.W., & Gross, J.J. (2005). The tie that binds? Coherence among emotion experience, behavior, and physiology. Emotion, 5(2), 175-190.
Levenson, R.W. (2004). Blood, sweat, and fears: The autonomic architecture of emotion. In P. Ekman, J.J. Campos, R.J. Davidson, & F.B.M. de Waal. Emotions inside out. New York: The New York Academy of Sciences.
Roberts, N.A., & Levenson. R.W. (2001). The Remains of the Workday: Impact of job stress and exhaustion on marital interaction in police couples. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 1052-1067.
Levenson, R. W. (1999). The intrapersonal functions of emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 13, 481-504.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Levenson, R. W. (1998). Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 12(2), 191-220.
Gross, J. J., & Levenson, R. W. (1997). Hiding feelings: The acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106, 95-103.