Alfons Hamm

“I started my career doing Pavlovian Conditioning,” says Alfons Hamm, Professor of Physiological and Clinical psychology at the University of Griefswald. “This inherently involved measuring physiological responses.” But in 1987, Hamm went to the University of Florida at Gainesville to work as a post-doctoral researcher with Dr. Peter Lang, sparking Hamm’s interest in emotion research, but also setting the foundation for a decades-long collaboration. In fact, “I just returned from Gainesville last month to start a new collaborative research program on emotional reactivity in patients across the entire anxiety disorders spectrum.”

Alfons HammIn his current research, Hamm employs multiple research methodologies, including fMRI, EEG/ERP and startle response (among many others) to examine emotional response in anxiety and depression. “I believe that the multi-method approach is crucial to understand complex psychological phenomena,” he notes. “What does the increased BOLD response in the amygdala during fear conditioning tell us, if we do not have other information that helps us to link this finding to the literature?” In pursuit of this, Hamm recently convinced a neurologist with whom he works to move their psychophysiology equipment to the scanner. “This now allows us to look at phenomena which we know from the literature–for example, dissocation of startle potentiation and skin conductance learning, heart deceleration and acceleration as indices of orienting and defense–and relate these basic concepts to brain imaging data. This is very important to avoid oversimplification of conclusions.”

Looking to the future, Hamm sees the field moving more and more towards continuing to use multiple levels of measurement to better understand brain behavior interactions. “It is necessary for the future to keep the interdisciplinary spirit of the field,” he says. “Of course one innovation I would like to see in the next ten years would be to study smaller neural networks how their activity and interaction unfolds in real time, and how this is related to psychological processes of perception, motivation, emotion, learning, memory and language, and psychopathology.”

Dr. Hamm, who is accepting graduate students, tries to foster an open and collaborative atmosphere in his lab, and to recruit researchers with a wide variety of experiences. “Of course psychophysiologists do need some technical skills,” he says. “But I always try to get a mix of people from more experienced post-doc people to Ph.D students and people on a MSc level. I also always try to get my clinicians to the lab meetings so that they learn to respect science and how difficult it is to do decent science but also to show scientists what kind of answers are needed by the clinicians.”