My lab will definitely be looking to admit multiple graduate students to start next fall. My lab has a long history of trainees thriving and going on to obtain tenure track positions at top universities (Yale, Dartmouth, Penn, NYU, Ohio State, Carnegie Mellon, UCLA). If my lab's interests are a fit with yours, there is no social neuroscience lab in the US with a better track record at helping students reach their goal of an academic career. We are also one of the only psychology departments with four faculty focusing on social neuroscience (Naomi Eisenberger, Carolyn Parkinson, Jennifer Silvers, and myself). We are in the process of creating a new graduate major in Social & Affective Neuroscience.
The UCLA Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab was one of the first labs in the United States to combine social psychology and fMRI neuroimaging. This gave me a lot of freedom to study all the things I find interesting rather than staying with one program of research for my entire career. As a result, I have studied numerous topics over my career including mentalizing, social working memory, self-knowledge, emotion regulation, self-control, persuasion, message propagation, social rejection, fairness, and dual-process models of social cognition. Although it is possible I will conduct future studies in one or more of these areas, below I have listed the areas where my lab is most likely to conduct studies over the next several years (i.e. while you are in graduate school). In other words, I will likely be admitting students whose interests align with one or more of the topics below.
CEEing: Seeing isn't just seeing anymore
We look around and see sunsets and stop signs. But we also see happy people and untrustworthy people. We also listen to someone give their perspective and say "I see what you mean" or "I see things differently". It turns out whether we are seeing the physical world, the psychological world, or the world of meaning, there are commonalities in how those very different acts of seeing are processed in the brain. All of these acts fall under a larger umbrella process that I call CEEing (Coherence of Experiential Elements). I believe how we CEE largely defines who we are, what we will think and do, how we will feel, and how we will relate to others. Note that multiple research areas listed below make use of this concept more directly. This is a new interest in the SCN lab and one that I am excited to have new students involved with.
Making social neuroscience more "social"
My lab has used fMRI as our primary tool since 1999. For the past few years, we have been experimenting with another tool - functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which is essential to making social neuroscience more social. fNIRS involves wearing a lightweight cap from which LED lights are directed into the brain (see photo). The LED light emerges from the brain in predictable patterns and the way in which active brain tissue absorbs light allows us to reconstruct fMRI type images of the activity in the cortical surface.
While fNIRS has certain drawbacks compared to fMRI (diminished spatial resolution and no subcortical coverage), for social neuroscience specifically it has great advantages. Because its lightweight, fNIRS is extremely portable and flexible in its usage. To this end, my lab has traveled to various countries around the world (Middle East, Asia), where we have set up mobile neuroscience laboratories and run cross-cultural experiments.
In addition, we now have the ability to use fNIRS on up to six people simultaneously as they interact with one another in a group context. By looking at the "neural synchrony" across two or more people we can detect when there is (and isn't) shared engagement with the conversation. In other words, we can identify when a person is (and isn't) experiencing the world the same way as someone else without having to ask them any questions, interrupting the flow of experience. Check out the video on this page so you can see the way in which fNIRS allows us to see two brains responding very similarly as they watch a video of a fighter jet.
Using fNIRS to predict hidden characteristics of individuals
The SCN lab is taking multiple approaches to using fNIRS. Most of these depend on the construct of CEEing described above. One of these approaches focuses on identifying hidden characteristics of individuals using a neural reference groups approach. The idea here is that if you have a certain belief or characteristic that is going to shape how you "see" certain things. By starting with a group that we know has a particular belief or characteristic and determining the neural bases of how they "see" things in that domain, we can determine with some degree of certainty whether a new individual has that same characteristic without explicitly asking them. This approach has been used in our lab to determine whether someone is pro-choice or is experiencing burn-out at work. We want to ask additional questions like, can this approach be used to tell before a person takes a math class, how they will do in the class or when a company is interviewing potential hires, which prospect will thrive the most if hired, or which of several career paths is an individual best suited for. Building off of my colleague, Carolyn Parkinson's groundbreaking work, we hope to use a version of this approach to predict compatibility among potential friends and romantic partners by identifying who "sees" the world most similarly.
Team dynamics and fNIRS
We are also using the construct of CEEing (see above) to examine teams as they are performing in real time. This could be a corporate team, a team in the military, or any number of other types of teams (though at this point, probably not sports teams). Historically, we have only been able to learn about teams by observing their behavior and asking some questions of team members outside of team meetings. With fNIRS, we can examine teams while they are meeting, brainstorming, and strategizing. We can determine when team members are in different neurocognitive states and how the distribution of these states over the course of the meeting relate to how successful a team will be. For instance, in a brainstorming meeting, it might be important to begin and end the meeting in more convergent mindsets to make sure everyone is on the same page, but in the middle period, more divergent mindsets might be critical to generating distinct novel ideas.
Default mode network: The social functions of the brain at rest
For the past few years, my lab has focused on how the brain optimizes our social functioning when we are at rest. In the late 1990s, neuroscientists discovered that there is a network of brain regions that is more active when people are at 'rest' than when they are doing a variety of visual, memory, and language tasks. They called this network the "default mode network" (DMN) because this network comes on spontaneously when we aren't engaged in other mental activity. We also know that the DMN is engaged whenever people are thinking about other people. But this still doesn't guarantee that the DMN is doing something social when we are at rest and not consciously thinking about other people.
In order to assess what the DMN is doing for us at rest, our program of research relates activity in DMN before and after social experiences to adaptive social outcomes. For instance, in multiple studies we have now shown that the magnitude of DMN in the brief rest right before a trial of a social task predicts efficiency on that task (but DMN prior to a non-social task does not). Relatedly, in a series of ten studies, we have shown that the brain has a natural preference for switching from non-social to social tasks and that a social reorientation during rest drives this effect.
In another set of studies, we have shown that the DMN shows more coordinated activity during rests that follow social experiences than other kinds of experiences. Additionally, the degree of DMN coordination in rests following social experiences predicts memory accuracy for those social experiences (but the same does not occur following non-social experiences).
Getting along: The neuroscience of respect
[Note: Unlikely to admit a student with this as their primary interest in the next admissions cycle] This topic has emerged slowly out of our longstanding research program on persuasion. While we have developed a technique for predicting from neural data when a person will be persuaded by a message and change their behavior, we have been struck by the national climate that makes persuasion on most topics impossible. We are living in such partisan times that if you and I don't agree ideologically to begin with there is little chance of me even listening to your persuasion attempts. If you are on the *other* side, you are obviously being fooled by "fake news" and there is something wrong with you for believing what you do. Today, those who disagree with us are seen as crazy, stupid, or immoral.
This led us to focus on respect as a key precursor to dialogue and persuasion. Specifically, we are trying to figure out how people who disagree can come together without being disagreeable. Rather than focusing on persuading people about a particular ideological position (e.g. gun control), we are focused on persuading people that those they disagree with are reasonable people who are worth connecting with. This program of research is funded by the Department of Defense and is advanced by the use of functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) which allows us to look at multiple people's brains simultaneously during real interactions.
Affect labeling and emotion regulation
[Note: Unlikely to admit a student with this as their primary interest in the next admissions cycle] Affect labeling and emotion regulation When people put their feelings into words, it can have the effect of soothing those same emotions. We study a version of this kind of emotion regulation that we call Affect Labeling (e.g. labeling your own affect or labeling something emotional out in the world). We have found that affect labeling tends to increase activity in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and diminish activity in the amygdala and other limbic regions. Affect labeling looks a lot like other kinds of emotion regulation, but people typically do not realize that affect labeling affects their experience so we think of it as a kind of Implicit Emotion Regulation. We are engaged in basic science studies to better understand affect labeling - to understand why and how it works. We also are involved in several clinical collaborations to examine how affect labeling may play a role in the health benefits of expressive writing and as a treatment component for anxiety disorders like spider phobia and PTSD.