Interview with Professor Gerhard Stemmler, 2009

This year's SPR conference will take place in the German capital Berlin. In anticipation of this event, the Interview Subcommittee of the Committee to Promote Student Interests chose to make a little side trip to the University of Marburg, one of Germany's most prominent universities for psychophysiological research. Dr. Stemmler, we thank you for having accepted to be interviewed for the SPR student newsletter and look forward to your responses. Let's start.

Personal Research

How did you become interested in psychophysiological research? What influenced your decision of taking up a research career in psychophysiology?

After finishing my "Vordiplom" (equivalent to a Bachelor's degree) in Hamburg, Germany, in 1971, I chose to continue studying under the mentorship of Professor Kurt Pawlik. A former research associate of Cattell, he kindled my interest into the multivariate experimental research strategy. How else could the complexities of persons acting in their situations be understood? Also, I had a great interest in philosophy and physiology, which directly led to the mind-body problem. Psychophysiology was the answer, and Professor Pawlik opened up his lab to satisfy my curiosity. My diploma thesis was on "Psychophysiological stress responses when looking at films with fantasy vs. reality content", for which I collected 23 EEG, EMG, and cardiovascular variables.

Four days after obtaining the "Diploma" in Psychology (in 1974), I embarked on a 11-year voyage as a research associate at the Psychiatric University Clinic in Hamburg, where our research group established a psychophysiological lab for somatovisceral and EEG variables, conducted studies in cooperation with clinical colleagues, performed methodological studies, and carried-out basic research in emotion. My dissertation was entitled "Psychophysiological emotion patterns" (1984). Only then did I start to think about an academic career, and soon I was lucky enough to join Professor Fahrenberg and Professor Myrtek's "Research Group Psychophysiology" in Freiburg. For over 35 years Freiburg was the capital of somatovisceral psychophysiology in Germany.

What research questions did you set out to answer? What are your insights so far?

My overarching research topic was how and to what extent physiology could inform psychology. From the beginning I was keen to carve out the psychological meaning of physiological responses. This topic led to insights into the implicit transfer function between indicators (methods of physiological response scaling) and indicands (psychological constructs), the graphical representation of physiological response profiles ("physiological maps"), how the profile parameters level, scatter, and shape map onto this representation, and the importance to study individual differences in activation, stress, or emotion always first from an intraindividual process perspective.

The next big topic was (and is to the present) the specificity of somatovisceral emotion responses. First, I distinguished among implicit models of emotion specificity. Using these I suggested that "context-deviation specificity" instead of the unrealistic "absolute specificity" should be tested against the null hypothesis of "unspecificity". Much of previous research was governed by experimental designs that were unable to test for context-deviation specificity. I have devised several large-scale studies to differentiate between anger and fear profiles. Presently I am preparing a study to differentiate between two positive emotions. The outcome of these studies is a biobehavioral emotion model, which emphasizes the functional meaning of emotions in assigning to them specific goals of the individual. These goals are approached by the recruitment of various nonspecific emotion tasks. The model of basic emotion systems specifies basic emotions and related goals as well as accompanying feelings, which can vary widely in the course of goal achievement. Finally, the component model of somatovisceral response organization postulates three components (non-emotional context, emotion signatures, contextual resources), which are posited to underlie physiological emotion responses.

Which physiological systems are involved in the generation of physiological responses? I have studied this question with pharmacological agents. First, I wanted to describe autonomic responses by a couple of activation components instead of two or three dozen single variables. The strategy to flesh out these components was to apply dual partial autonomic blockades of the alpha-adrenergic, beta-adrenergic, and cholinergic transmission (versus placebo). More recently, my colleagues (Mira Chavanon, Dr. Anja Leue, Dr. Jan Wacker) and I have used centrally acting substances to enhance or dampen the dopaminergic neurotransmission in the brain, because dopamine is postulated to be involved in agentic emotions and agentic personality traits.

Another research topic is the biology of personality. Starting off with the psychophysiology of extraversion and neuroticism, which did not yield the results predicted by Eysenck's theory, we have more recently turned to the trait agentic extraversion sensu Richard Depue. Our results indeed suggest a dopaminergic basis of this trait. Jan could identify a "theta-index", a sensitive marker for dopaminergically associated individual differences in agentic extraversion. We have also studied Reinforcement-Sensitivity Theory by Jeffrey Gray with the help of hemispheric asymmetry in the alpha band of the EEG. Whereas the well-known motivational behavior tendency model predicts relative left-frontal activation for approach-related and relative right-frontal activation for withdrawal-related motivational states, our own studies suggested instead a "BIS-BAS model of anterior hemispheric asymmetry", with a behavioral facilitation system associated with relative left-frontal and a conflict-detection system as a right-frontal system. With these studies the EEG has returned as one of my prominent research tool. But we are going further "neuro", to brain imaging and genetic polymorphisms of specified genes to help promote our arsenal in emotion and personality research.

What research questions would you like to see answered within the next ten years?

Three of the infinite number of challenging research questions must do. (1) How do we navigate within the situations we are in? That is, which processes guide our moment-to-moment adaptations and actions? (2) What are the somatovisceral processes, what are the brain processes during really intense emotions? (Research would need to go beyond simple picture, film clip, music, or imagery induction techniques and perhaps use virtual reality in the lab or studies of people enacting their emotional life in everyday situations.) (3) How do gene-environment interactions and correlations work to make personality a dynamic system with both biological and cultural-environmental influences on feelings, cognitions, and behavior?

Your research spans an impressive range of topics -- emotion, personality, applied statistical methodology, and physiological models -- that are all built around a psychophysiological core. How do you manage to integrate these diverse topics and have an expertise in all of them, as your publications evidence?

First you need time and training (some say that it takes about ten years to master a subject area), add to that interest and the will to achieve, and then finish off with opportunities and expectations of significant others. Integration of diverse topics is an adventure (probably satisfying my need for constructing sense), and it is necessary to build the science of the person.

Advice for Students

Methodology in psychophysiology becomes ever more complex with advancements in technology, but also ever more important. What is your recommendation for students in psychophysiology, for mastering the new and old technology (e.g. psychophysiology measures) and being certain of its sound application to research questions?

If you can, take opportunities to work in one, better two, labs. Get involved, ask questions. Start getting acquainted with the recording and analysis routines in the lab. Then devise your own research project, this makes you think harder and read more important stuff than when you just follow an already elaborated research agenda of your professor. Ask for feedback and discussion of your research project. Be creative, go and get advice, but also try to solve problems on your own. Then you will notice whether or not you need more background. As soon as you notice that people start asking you questions to help them, you are on track. Visit pre-conference workshops and summer schools to get hands-on advice in technology you don't know yet. Ask your professor for opportunities of lab rotation or a practical in another lab. Visit meetings and conferences to build your own social network.

The start of the university semester in Germany often coincides with SPR's conference date, which sometimes means making a choice between being there for your students at the beginning of the semester and hearing/presenting research. How do you balance your teaching and research (e.g., conference attendance) when it comes to making these choices? How do you decide between the two?

I know that academic people do resolve this potential conflict in different ways, if there is a conflict at all. For me there is a conflict indeed. If, say the SPR conference, falls into the first semester week, I am not attending the conference. I have about 200 students in the personality lecture and another 60 students in courses on psychological testing and report writing, who need to be set on track. If the conference is in the second week, the conflict is somewhat attenuated.

The Job Market

What is your advice for SPR students on the job market at the moment? How would you gauge the market for junior psychophysiology researchers?

The job market for junior researchers with a good psychophysiological training currently is excellent, at least in Germany. Actually, we even have problems filling positions for postgraduate research or teaching assistants. Maybe this changes back to a more balanced job market, since we experience rising numbers of students interested in the neuroscience curriculum.

In your experience, what are the major reasons for an unsuccessful job application? And, on the other hand, what makes for a successful applicant?

There are several factors that singly or in combination are reasons for an unsuccessful job application as a postgraduate psychophysiological junior researcher. These factors include little competence (applied: no lab experience, theoretical: topic of master thesis unrelated to current research program, previous performance: poor grades), little motivation (inflexibility to adjust to varying lab times, psychophysiological research is only second choice), and mediocre writing skills or slowness in writing (in Germany: English writing skills). A successful applicant has medium to high hands-on and theoretical competence, is strongly interested and achievement-motivated, is methodologically well-trained, has a fluent writing, and perhaps some programming knowledge (in Presentation or E-Prime, perhaps Matlab, script-programming in one of the major statistical packages). Of course, the successful applicant should also display social and team competence.

Looking Forward

The 'decade of the brain' (1990-1999) seems to have stirred interest in the assessment of central nervous system functioning, primarily with the new methodologies of brain imaging. Do you think that certain psychophysiology measures will become ever more important, while interest in other measures will decrease?

There are interesting fluctuations in the use of methods which help to gain (mostly noninvasive) access to biological processes. One aspect is technological availability and cost-effectiveness. For example, brain imaging did not become available to many experimental psychologists earlier than about the year 2000.

Another aspect is the prevailing scientific paradigm and the associated physiological measures that operationalize as best as possible the constructs defining the paradigm. A good example for this was the shift from the constructs of emotion, stress and psychosomatics, which predominantly used somatovisceral variables assessed with the polygraph, to cognitive constructs such as memory, speech, thinking, decision, etc., which predominantly used EEG variables. Starting in the 1980s, SPR conferences housed ever more EEG papers, more and more labs were equipped with an "EEG-machine". When emotion came back as a hot topic in the 1990s, in some labs emotions were studied with the existing cognitive experimental tool kit and the EEG. Unfortunately, subcortical affective processes could not be captured this way.

A last aspect is cross-fertilization of psychophysiological methods. Brain imaging together with the EEG combines the respective advantages of these methods for spatial and temporal resolution. Brain imaging is starting to trigger new interest into visceral variables, as the activity of some of them can be traced to certain brain structures, such as activity of the insular cortex or dorsal cingulate cortex.

In psychological research, we have moved from the pinnacle of the cognitive revolution in the 1980s to the affective revolution of the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century. From your point of view, what will be the next major paradigm shift in psychological research direction?

Thomas Kuhn's perspective of the history of science reserves a very special meaning for the term "revolution". The paradigm clash between behaviorism and cognitive psychology in the 1960s could perhaps be called a revolution. But the advent of affective science was just the rebirth of a neglected psychological topic. The principle convictions underlying the "normal science of psychology" remained untouched.

Probably we are going to see a "neurologizing" of the social and cultural, because the contents of these categories are represented in the brains of individuals.

The next revolution in the science of psychology is far away. But if one day neuroscience has deciphered the mechanisms of the brain, I would guess that the conceptual distinctions at the core of psychology (e.g., affect, cognition, motivation, personality, self, social) are no longer valid descriptors of human nature. At this point a revolution could occur.

As an aside, despite the declaration of the "decade of behavior" (2000 - 2010), I have not seen a new focus on behavior in psychological research. Quite to the contrary, psychophysiological methods are typically applied in a stationary lab context, avoiding the behavior in people's real lives. Ambulatory monitoring can bring psychophysiology to real-life behavior.

Where do you see the field of psychophysiology in ten years?

Psychophysiology is the back bone of (biological) psychology's claim as a natural science. Psychophysiology is costly, but it also attracts research money and can yield high-impact publications (as problematic as the impact statistics are). Thus, there will be continued fostering of psychophysiology by academic and research institutions worldwide. In addition, students continue to appreciate "hard" science within the "soft" science of psychology. Consequently I expect further growth of psychophysiology within the next ten years. But a word of caution: Psychophysiology, in particular brain imaging, genotyping, etc., could come under increasing pressure from the medical and biological sciences. I hope that psychophysiology will survive within psychology as an integrated mind-body perspective.