One of the remarkable properties of consciousness is that all the different senses can be unified in a single stream of experience. The objects that we see, hear, touch, and so on, can be perceived as bound together, even though it is known that separate regions of the brain are specialized for each sensory modality. We use fMRI and decoding algorithms to understand how the different streams of sensory information are merged by the brain. We aim to map this complex neural architecture to better understand perception, the formation of concepts, and the unified character of conscious experience. We apply the lessons learned from brain data to neural network models of sensory integration. The goal is to improve the performance of machine perception and object recognition, and to understand better how the brain performs such challenging tasks.
Feelings are mental experiences of body states. They signify physiological need (i.e. hunger), tissue injury (i.e. pain), optimal organism function (i.e. well-being), responds to threats (i.e. fear or anger) or specific social interactions (i.e. compassion, gratitude or love). Feelings constitute a crucial component of the mechanisms of both simple and complex life regulation. The neural substrates of feelings can be found at all levels of the nervous system, from individual neurons to subcortical nuclei and cortical regions. We believe that (a) unmyelinated axons play a critical role in the generation of feeling states, (b) that non-synaptic signaling is an unrecognized key to the process of feeling, and that (c) the integration of neural and non-neural processes benefits from the equally unrecognized extent of the gaps in the blood-brain barrier.
The USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education (CANDLE) brings educational innovation and developmental affective neuroscience into partnership, and uses what is learned to guide the transformation of schools, policy, and the student and teacher experience for a healthier and more equitable society.
Over the past two decades, music training has been associated with better than average language and mathematical skills and higher IQ, while differences between musicians and nonmusicians have been found in brain areas related to hearing and movement, among others. What is the mechanism behind such differences? One important goal of our program is to understand the effects of music training on brain development, investigated in terms of psychological (emotional, cognitive, social) and actual neural functions.
The only way to correctly assess the effects of music training on child development is to study children before they start any music training and to follow them systematically thereafter, to establish how their brain and behavior change in relation to their training. Beginning in 2012, in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their youth orchestra program (YOLA) and Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), we have been investigating the effects of group-based music training in 80 children between the ages of six and seven. We have continued to follow them, to document the effects of such training on their development, using neural, emotional, cognitive, and social development measures.
Our bodies are one of the most fundamental ways we understand ourselves, the world, and other people. Our metaphors relay this knowledge: we feel with our gut; we love with our heart; we toss ideas as if with our hands.
Our program explores the idea that rudimentary sensory-motor brain regions, which may have been originally designed for processing our own body states, may be intrinsically involved in processing aspects of higher cognition. These include language, thought, emotions, empathy, and social understanding.
People do not always do what they believe is in their best interest. This is strikingly true of the individual struggling with addiction. But it is also evident in more commonplace phenomena like overeating, spending beyond one’s means, over-indulgence in passive entertainment, and other bad habits too common to be considered pathological. At the same time, people are not powerless against these failings. In everyday life, people refer to their efforts to overcome these behaviors as “self-control” or “willpower.”
Storytelling helps us create meaning. Stories help us organize complex information into easily understood formats, and are often used to express important values and cultural knowledge. Surprisingly, little is known about how the brain processes narratives and how they are understood. We are taking a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the neurobiological systems involved in processing narratives in order to gain new insights into this uniquely human phenomenon.
The Computational Social Science Laboratory (CSSL) investigates properties of cognition by using documents of the social discourse, such as stories, narratives, social media, transcriptions of speeches and news articles, in conjunction with behavioral and fMRI studies. CSSL is an interdisciplinary group, where researchers and students from psychology and computer science tackle similar research problems from different perspectives. We use machine-learning and natural language processing techniques guided by psychological theories to identify various social and cognitive properties of human psychology. Our focus is on theory-based natural language processing and social media analysis to examine the structure of human values without relying on preset questionnaires.
Scientific approaches to understand the neural processes underlying how we make decisions have used a variety of methods in their quest to describe how the brain makes decisions, including functional neuroimaging, and work with brain damaged patients. We studied the decision-making capabilities of patients who had suffered injury to the ventromedial sector of their prefrontal cortex. At the time, the decision-making deficit seen in these patients presented a puzzling defect because their impairment was obvious in their real life, but there was no laboratory probe to detect and measure this decision-making impairment in the clinic.
Mindfulness meditation practices are simple attentional exercises with significant philosophical foundations and far-reaching effects on domains of psychology including perception, emotion, and self-identity. Mindfulness has proven to be a useful psychological construct and mindfulness meditation practice a useful clinical intervention promoting wellness and relief from psychiatric distress. In the past decade a deeper understanding of the neural changes associated with mindfulness and mindfulness practices has come into focus. We are seeking to clarify this understanding further, assessing the neurophysiologic concomitants to meditation in long term meditation practitioners as well as the neurophysiologic bases to mindfulness practices in beginners and people with everyday stress seeking to achieve greater wellness and self-insight.