Understanding the mechanisms of emotions

Florin Dolcos examines the interactions of human emotions and cognition
Florin Dolcos
Florin Dolcos (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.)

Emotions are part of being human. How do they affect brain cognition? And how does cognition affect emotions? Those questions are at the root of understanding numerous affective disorders, and they’re in the realm of Florin Dolcos, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience. His integrative approach to understanding these issues is leading to new programs that help people live happier, more productive lives. He answered our questions below.

Departments and units:  Department of Psychology, Neuroscience Program, and Beckman Institute for Advanced Science & Technology

Years at the University of Illinois: 11

What is your area of expertise?  

I am a psychologist, neurobiologist, and cognitive, affective, and clinical neuroscientist. My main research interests are in understanding the neurobehavioral mechanisms of emotion- cognition interactions. I study the impact of emotion on cognition reflected in both enhancing (e.g., better memory for emotional events) and impairing effects (e.g., increased emotional distractibility). Similarly important is to also to understand how cognition influences emotion processing, typically expressed as cognitive control of emotion or emotion regulation. Clarification of these issues is critical for understanding affective disorders, which are associated with intrusive recollection of distressing events, increased emotional distractibility, and emotion dysregulation. The tendency to ruminate on negative emotions and memories observed in depression, for instance, or increased emotional sensitivity associated with high levels of anxiety affect tremendously the way those affected by such distressing conditions think and behave. Therefore, it has become apparent that finding treatments that alleviate them depends on understanding the changes in the neurobehavioral mechanisms that lead to dysfunctional emotion-cognition interactions.

What are you currently researching? Why are you passionate about this area of study?

My efforts to date have led to the emergence of a Multimethod Investigation of Neurobehavioral Dynamics – MINDs – in Emotion-Cognition Interactions, which I have been spearheading at Illinois. This approach emerges naturally from my research in related fields, with the main goal of identifying optimal interactions between emotion and cognition that allow us to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives. The success of this approach is also demonstrated by two major recent developments with practical implications: (1) the creation of a novel training program to increase resilience in students, veterans, and clinical patients (Dolcos S. et al., 2021), and (2) the development of a novel method for simultaneous brain imaging that provides unprecedented spatial and temporal precision in the investigation of brain function (Moore et al., 2021). This integrative approach has also led to the creation of the Social and Emotional Dimensions of Well-being (SEW) Research Group at the Beckman Institute that I have led (2016-2021), which capitalizes on the extraordinary local talent. I am really excited by the combination of such conceptual, practical, and methodological advancements because of their translational impact that will allow the development of affordable large-scale programs aimed at increasing resilience and well-being! 

What impact will your work have on your field and the community?

These exciting developments open new opportunities for advancing knowledge about the human brain and for the generation of novel models and theories of emotion-cognition interactions. This will considerably advance how cognitive and emotional dysfunctions are conceptualized, measured, treated, and prevented, to reduce the associated societal burden. Our ultimate goal is to develop large-scale, low-cost, training programs that are accessible through digital media, provide reliable, long-lasting behavior changes and resilience against distress, and promote psychological well-being. Such tools are essential in coping with life stressors, whose impact is exacerbated at times of crisis, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic and its impending aftermath.

What do you enjoy most about teaching? What advice would you offer to students interested in your field?

There is a saying that “if one wants to understand something, they should try and teach it.” I enjoy a lot the process of helping others understand science, through the filter of my own best understanding of whatever I teach. Because oftentimes this process depends on making connections between seemingly separate pieces of knowledge, I strongly encourage students to look for such connections. I would also encourage students to keep a good balance in developing their knowledge, so that they can simultaneously see both “the trees and the forest.”

Please describe your proudest or most significant achievement.

Reflecting the spirit of the MINDs in Emotion-Cognition Interactions approach mentioned above, my proudest achievement is probably the ability to initiate and engage in numerous collaborations addressing pressing questions in the field. These collaborations reflect our team’s highly diverse interactions and international presence, involving co-authorships with researchers from +40 institutions, 10 countries, and four continents. Our team’s collaborative and international spirit is also reflected by our recent review publication (Dolcos F. et al., 2020, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews). Notably, from my almost 200 publication collaborators over the last 20 years, more than half have been added in the last five years, while at Illinois. Thus, I expect that this collaborative spirit will last for the foreseeable future, and I am honored to have the opportunity to continue playing a major role in further developing this multifaceted integrative approach and other related initiatives.

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Dave Evensen