Interview with Dr. Margaret Bradley - February 2012
1. Your work has examined how attention toward emotional stimuli is affected by various stimulus parameters such as presentation duration, stimulus complexity and repetition and by participant variables, such as gender. Moreover, you have examined how emotional stimuli are processed using a multitude of physiological measures, including startle eye-blink, pupil diameter, heart rate, skin conductance, ERPs and fMRI. In so doing, your work has fundamentally shaped our understanding of the processing of emotional stimuli. Where do you see your research going in the coming years?
Well, there is still so much to be done to understand the specific variables that modulate each of the responses we've measured, what these measures tell us about affective and cognitive processes, and how it all plays out in the brain. I guess that should keep me busy for another 100 years or so. Other future initiatives hearken back to my past. Because my graduate training at the University of Wisconsin focused on learning and memory, I have always included memory probes in experiments that I run, and therefore have a backlog of data regarding emotion and memory that I would like to address. We are also conducting a number of studies exploring ERP and BOLD measures of emotional memory that are quite interesting. In general, I see my task – doing basic research on emotion – as providing paradigms, measures, and theory that can be utilized by those trying to understand emotional behavior in clinical contexts, and in that sense, I see a lot of basic research as inherently "translational".
2. Most of your work has examined emotion-processing in normative populations, however you have also received grants to examine dental fear and Angelman syndrome (a rare, neuro-genetic disorder). What have you found in the context of these projects, and how do they fit into your broader research program?
The study of individual differences, in addition to their translational interest, often provides a unique methodology for testing hypotheses – so, for instance, we have used dental fear, which is largely mediated by fear of pain, as a way to study both the psychophysiology of aversive anticipation as well as the neural systems implicated in anticipating aversive events. The idea is that specific reactions and neural structures associated with fearfulness will be accentuated in individuals reporting high dental fear. This manipulation therefore provides a handle onto specifically determining the emotional components of anticipation. We have found for example, that individuals reporting high dental fear show increased startle potentiation when anticipating the possibility of receiving an electric shock, as well as heightened activation in a specific neural circuit, including the insula, that appears to mediate emotional reactions when anticipating pain.
My interest in Angelman's Syndrome, on the other hand, was initially spurred by the fact that my nephew was born with this disorder, which involves the deletion of a large segment of chromosome 15, leading to severe cognitive impairment. Most critically, although individuals with Angelman Syndrome have no language whatsoever, they are fascinated by pictures. Thus, the idea was that studying neural reactivity (ERPs) during picture viewing might provide a unique window into cognitive processing. Unfortunately, the disorder is quite rare, making recruitment difficult, and movement artifact and participant reluctance to wear the sensor net led to insurmountable difficulties.
3. You espouse some of the best practices in science, with an emphasis on well-controlled experiments and replication of effects. Your work is known for its scientific rigor and careful, methodological approach. How would you describe your approach to science/your philosophy of science?
One problem with doing psychological science is that we are, in a sense, turning the microscope on ourselves. There is a great need to resist theorizing from personal experience, and to try to define the problem under investigation as mechanistically as possible. Without this, psychological science can become sort of a game, in which the goal is to "show' something that is already known (from experience), rather than discovering something that is true, or at least predictable, in reality. My research has generally taken the form of first determining the physiological reactions when processing emotional cues, and then determining to what extent these reactions reflect other possible factors – brightness, complexity, familiarity, etc. The goals are basic science goals – to understand the psychophysiology of emotion and the neural networks mediating these responses.
Both experimental control and replication are fundamental to accomplishing these goals. My graduate training in verbal learning and memory really alerted me to the critical importance that controlling extraneous variables plays in experimental work. Without it, there is no way to isolate the possible. Remember – those verbal learning guys used nonsense syllables explicitly in order to get rid of all the factors that might influence performance other than that under study (e.g., repetition, serial position, rehearsal, etc). In the absence of good experimental controls, patterns in the data can be due to many different extraneous variables, and conclusions are extremely tentative. And, replication is the ONLY methodology for determining whether an effect is real. If it does not replicate – it simply is not a true finding. Unfortunately, in the current scientific climate, there is a very strong emphasis on "novelty" and "innovation" which not only discourages replication, but in many cases overtly disallows it. Since science proceeds ONLY by replication and extension, we will not be able to move forward if we cannot look back. The current emphasis on novelty unfortunately teaches young scientists to ignore past data, avoid replication, and to constantly have to claim that "this is the first time to my knowledge" or "nobody has done X before". In fact, these statements almost appear to be pro forma in articles and grants in the current scientific climate, and as a scientific rationale, they are quite empty, and usually untrue. While this climate exists, I believe little progress can be made, and I think it is up to us, the scientific community, to put a stop to it. We can do it as reviewers of journal articles and grants, and we can do it as faculty members when it comes to promotion and hiring. We can also work hard to inoculate our students against this very false scientific premise, with the hope that they can turn it around in the next generation.
4. You are one of the best-recognized and most accomplished psychophysiologists. For aspiring psychophysiologists who are female, you may provide a particular kind of inspiration they do not find elsewhere. Do you have any advice for them?
Well, of course, thanks very much for the compliment. In terms of inspiration, though, in science I think it's best to find inspiration in non-gender related phenomena, such as intellectual acumen, experimental prowess, or other scientific skills, without regard to age, gender, race, etc. In terms of advice to young scientists, regardless of gender – do the best science you can and if it is good, it will be recognized by the community.
5. You have played and continue to play a major role in the development of standardized affective stimuli sets, such as the IAPS and ANEW. As you are aware, the IAPS have become the go-to stimuli for many emotion researchers and the benefits of using such stimuli have been felt across the field. What do you see as the next step in further refining the use of standardized stimuli to elicit affective responses?
We are currently developing a set of materials that will include a set of standardized biological markers so that stimulus selection can be made on the basis of how a stimulus activates specific brain or bodily reactions, rather than only on the basis of evaluative ratings of pleasure and arousal. Emotion can be measured, as we know, in a variety of different measures that can tell us different things about the affective processing. Specific investigations targeting specific measures could benefit from the ability to select stimuli that strongly target the measure under investigation.
6. If you hadn't become a psychologist, what would you have done instead?
Currently, I'm very interested in molecular genetics and particle physics – both topics fascinate me, and make up a lot of my "pleasure" reading. Genetics was nowhere near where it is right now when I was deciding on a career, and, as far as physics goes, I just didn't appreciate the invisible as much when I was younger. In terms of genetics, I am less interested in behavioral genetics than in the genetic mechanisms associated with, for instance, deciding which X chromosome is randomly inactivated in each cell of the female body ("lyonization"), why some genes are only expressed on the maternal or paternal chromosome ("imprinting"), and how epigenetic marks are placed on the genome ("de novo methylation"). Any of these areas could take an entire lifetime of research. I won't even start on some of the interesting questions in particle physics. Finally, I would also have liked to investigate the neural factors underlying Alzheimer's disease, as it is a devastating illness that really needs to be wiped out.
7. Where would you like to see the field of affective psychophysiology go in the next 5 or 10 years? The next 25 years?
I would like to see us establish something like the "standard model" in quantum physics – a set of descriptions/facts/definitions that we agree on, so we can move forward. As it is, the field is somewhat stationary, or, sometimes, even regressive -- we don't build consistently on what is already established, or try to agree on a set of fundamental observations, but instead continue to debate questions that have been debated for the past 100 years, without enough movement forward. For instance – as physicists have agreed to live with a wave/particle duality in nature, it would seem useful for emotion theorists to agree on a dimension/state view of emotion – both are valid, albeit slightly different, descriptors of affective experience. Agreeing on a set of basic definitions is also difficult in the area of emotion, and yet being able to define phenomena consistently across experimental investigations, rather than getting all tangled up in semantic differences, is critical to making progress.
8. What are your thoughts on balancing personal and professional life? Is striking a balance in these areas made more difficult by being married to your long-term collaborator and labmate?
When two people share their work life, as we do, a struggle with the need to "turn it off" in order to promote a "personal" side when one's partner is either not involved or not interested just doesn't exist. So it's not really necessary to explicitly divide life into personal and professional parts - they merge together rather seamlessly. I would guess that is why people who work together often marry – there is another shared dimension that makes life just that much easier. So our personal life can be professional at times and our professional life can be personal – for instance it is always fun to go to conferences because we can enjoy both the work and leisure times as a couple. At home, we can talk about theory and data if we want, but then again, we usually prefer to focus on other activities, such as reading, relaxing, eating, etc. In general, our weekends often go by with little or no talk of professional activities, as we choose instead to recharge by leaving the lab and its life behind for a couple of days.
9. What are your thoughts on publication? How do you decide what to publish and what not to publish? Do you have any advice for younger scientists who might feel that they must "publish or perish"?
In general, I try to publish data that I am fairly certain will replicate – either because it replicates work from another lab, or because I have been able to replicate it in my own. In the current world, I think a lot, maybe even a majority, of studies are one-offs – probably will not replicate, but the emphasis on quantity of publications has really increased over the past 10 or 15 years. I'm hoping that the focus on quantity will change to a focus on quality (although this is of course much harder to evaluate and "impact factor" is definitely not the answer). Given the veritable explosion of journals and papers, I often wonder – who can possibly read and integrate all this stuff? For younger scientists, I almost don't know what to say. It is almost impossible, in my opinion, to publish quality, worthwhile research, especially in psychophysiology or neuroimaging, at the current expected rate. The science just doesn't support it. And, I can't think of a single scientist who has earned scientific respect based on the number of publications. It's just not a relevant measure of scientific success, and yet, it is the yardstick for merit and promotion in most academic circles. Again, I think the answer has to come from the scientific community – rather than going along with the idea that number of publications is an indicator of scientific success, as faculty members, reviewers, and committee members, we need to not only resist the impulse but actively refuse to just count. We need to try to more realistically define what the indices of good science are, and to promote their use in decisions regarding hiring, merit, funding, and promotion.
10. What parts of your career do you/have you enjoyed most?
As a full-time researcher, I've been extremely fortunate in being able to spend my time pretty much doing what I choose over the years. I've always enjoyed all facets of experimental work - writing programs, making the equipment go, designing studies, analyzing the data. I've of course enjoyed meeting and working with the many wonderful people who have been in the lab over the years. Travelling the world has also been a kick. And, of course, SPR has played a big role in my career, and I've enjoyed all my SPR activities – from program chair to president to editor. Looking back, I'd say it's all been pretty good.
11. What model do you espouse as a graduate advisor? Do you have any advice for young faculty members who are about to start their own labs and begin advising graduate students?
My experience has always been with a close mentorship model. My graduate career was built on a close collaboration with my advisor, Art Glenberg, at the University of Wisconsin, and then continued with my post-doctoral work at the University of Florida, where I learned a tremendous amount in a completely new area (psychophysiology) from Peter Lang and Bruce Cuthbert. Working closely with all these folks provided me with the most important training I received – courses, conferences, and other learning activities always provided much less training and education than laboratory work, lab meetings, and one-on-one interactions/discussions. I try to continue this model in my lab – I am available full-time and my interactions with students, post-bacs, and post-docs in the lab are constant and many, ranging from technical to analytical to theoretical. I think one of the most important factors for young faculty to consider in their own labs is proximity – if the lab and student offices are distant from where you are, it will be very difficult to be easily available and have an impact at all stages of the research training. So – if possible, create a space where you and your students can interact easily and often.
12. You've been a major figure in SPR for some time now, including serving as president in 2001-2002. In what ways have you seen SPR grow and change over the years?
Well, SPR has become much more financially stable since I was first on the board of directors - at that time, I think we had something like $16,000 or some other ridiculously low amount of funds in the bank. We had to make every conference cover all its costs, and had no funds for other initiatives, as we do now. It was a struggle. So that is one area where SPR has changed dramatically, and it has allowed SPR to operate as a society that can influence and make changes in the scientific community. Also, SPR has gotten more and more international over the years, which is so appropriate, given the relatively few researchers who have the expertise and experience to conduct psychophysiological research. Another change, which is perhaps due more to the current scientific climate than to the society per se, however, is that it seems that the intense and passionate discussion of ideas following symposia in years past has almost disappeared in recent years. No questions, no comments are typical. Passion is a big part of science, though, and I'd like to see SPR get some of that mojo back.