TAG: "Psychology"

When you’re smiling

Are happier people healthier? UC Irvine psychologist explores power of positive emotions.

Sarah Pressman, assistant professor of psychology & social behavior at UC Irvine, and her dog, Milo, enjoy an afternoon at William R. Mason Regional Park near campus. She studies the link between happiness and health. (Photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine)

By Kathryn Bold, UC Irvine

Driving on the 405 freeway in Orange County rush-hour traffic, Sarah Pressman can be forgiven if she doesn’t feel like smiling. When other cars cut her off or ride her bumper, she’s tempted to do what many commuters do: curse or engage in some creative sign language. But she grins and bears it – even if it means clamping a pen between her teeth to force herself to smile.

“I literally put a pen in my mouth when I drive. It helps because you can’t feel really angry and stressed when you have this ridiculous smile on your face,” Pressman says.

She takes smiling seriously – and for good reason. An assistant professor of psychology & social behavior at UC Irvine, she studies the link between positive emotion and physical well-being. Pressman is among the first researchers to demonstrate that happy, optimistic, cheerful people tend to be healthier than those who are sad, angry or depressed, and she’s working to understand why.

“I’m not really studying what makes people happy or how they can improve their life satisfaction,” she says. “I’m trying to understand why people who are happy do better physically. Why do they live longer? Why are they less likely to get cancer? How do these positive traits protect people and keep them healthy, and how can we take advantage of them to help others?”

Put on a happy face

Pressman herself smiles often – a big, natural grin – and speaks fast, as though in a hurry to get to the bottom of her latest query. She’s led a host of studies that delve into the relationship between positive emotion and health. In particular, she’s found that smiles – even the fake, beauty pageant kind – can have beneficial physiological effects, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing pain.

Her research is based on the facial feedback hypothesis, an idea once floated by Charles Darwin that “the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.” Pressman was particularly intrigued by a 1988 German study in which subjects viewed “The Far Side” comics, some while clenching a pen between their teeth to create an automatic smile and others while holding a pen between their puckered lips, as if sipping a straw, to maintain a neutral expression. The smiling group rated the comics funnier than did the neutral group, indicating that any smile, genuine or artificially induced, can lift one’s spirits.

To find out if those happy feelings translate into health benefits, Pressman conducted a study two years ago in which students from a Midwestern university used chopsticks – a more appetizing choice than pens – to maintain either a neutral, nonsmiling expression or a standard, do-you-want-fries-with-that smile. She also coached a third group to practice more natural, ear-to-ear grins – known as Duchenne smiles – that engage the eyes as well as the mouth. Pressman then asked all of them to perform stress-inducing tasks, such as tracing a star with their nondominant hand or submerging their hand in ice water.

Surprisingly, both smiling groups experienced less stress and discomfort than the neutral group. In fact, fake smiles produced nearly the same positive results as real ones. There also were measurable physiological differences. Heart rates of the smiling participants were lower than those of the nonsmilers during the test and dropped faster when it was over.

That something as simple as a smile could have such a profound effect on health garnered a storm of media attention. Pressman’s findings were touted in major outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and even raised smiles among viewers of “The Colbert Report.” Comedian Stephen Colbert mugged on camera with a pen in his mouth. (Watch the CBS News story “Grin and Bear It” online at youtube.com/watch?v=nkGsgQvY4hw.)

All joking aside, the study has serious health implications.

“When your heart doesn’t go back down to baseline after a stressor’s over, it puts pressure on you. It puts a burden on your heart,” Pressman notes. Individuals whose heart rates remain elevated after stress are more susceptible to future hypertension and heart disease.

Taking the sting out of vaccinations

In a related study, Pressman found that people who smiled while getting a simulated flu shot rated the experience 40 percent less painful than did those who didn’t wear a happy face.

“They also had lower heart rate responses to the stressful experience of the needle,” she says. “I like having physiological data to go along with [the self-reported feedback] because you can’t fake it.”

Seeing potential benefits to children’s health, Pressman is applying for a pediatric grant to conduct a follow-up study.

“I feel we’ll be able to translate this into the real world quite nicely,” she says. “If you can reduce the pain of a flu shot, it might encourage more parents to get their kids vaccinated.” In addition, she and other researchers have shown that vaccines aren’t as effective if people are stressed out while getting their shot; smiling while enduring the needle might offer better protection against the flu.

There are, however, limits to the power of facial expressions over feelings, Pressman notes.

“It’s not going to help people who have chronic stress or chronic pain. If an earthquake happens or a tornado strikes, you’re not going to be able to smile your way out of it,” she says. “But for most of us, the stressors we face day to day are minor, like getting stuck in traffic or stubbing your toe. And these simple interventions seem to be pretty helpful for this kind of thing.”

First-world problem?

Pressman wondered if positive emotions only affected people’s health in developed countries, where “they have the luxury of worrying about their happiness.”

“The question we had was, ‘Would happiness have the same benefits in places where people face famine, homelessness and death due to lack of medical care?’” she says. “We anticipated that it wouldn’t, because there are more pressing things that might impact their health.”

In a first-of-its-kind study involving 142 countries, Pressman used data from the Gallup World Poll to compare participants’ emotional state (the surveys asked if they had recently experienced happiness, enjoyment, worry, sadness, stress, anger, etc.) with their self-reported physical health.

The results surprised her. Emotions actually had a greater influence on health in developing countries such as Sierra Leone and Nigeria than in industrialized nations. For instance, people in Malawi, which has a per capita gross domestic product of $900, show a stronger connection between happiness and wellness than residents of the U.S., with a per capita GDP of $49,800.

One explanation for the finding: People in developed countries have access to medical care that can counteract the effects of negative emotions on the body. “An American with hypertension can take blood pressure-lowering medication. A Malawian cannot,” Pressman says.

Reason to smile

Pressman is now trying to pinpoint which specific positive emotions work best to counteract high blood pressure and cortisol levels, which rise during stress and suppress one’s immune system.

“We want to take a magnifying glass to this and find out which are the most beneficial– feeling calm and relaxed? Vigorous? Excited? Enthusiastic?” she says. So far, her research indicates that an enthusiastic, robust attitude may do the body the most good.

Ultimately, Pressman hopes her work will help people cope better with traffic jams and other stressors of modern life.

“In the U.S., we wear our stress as a badge of honor. People continue to overtax themselves, to put in long hours and have a poor work-life balance,” she says. “We know stress is one of the things killing us. I don’t think it’s going away. So if we could teach people simple strategies to prevent stress from hurting their bodies, that would be fantastic.”

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Add nature, art, religion to life’s best anti-inflammatories

Positive emotions associated with markers of good health.

By Yasmin Anwar, UC Berkeley

Taking in such spine-tingling wonders as the Grand Canyon, Sistine Chapel ceiling or Schubert’s “Ave Maria” may give a boost to the body’s defense system, according to new research from UC Berkeley.

Researchers have linked positive emotions – especially the awe we feel when touched by the beauty of nature, art and spirituality – with lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that signal the immune system to work harder.

“Our findings demonstrate that positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health,” said Jennifer Stellar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study, which she conducted while at UC Berkeley.

While cytokines are necessary for herding cells to the body’s battlegrounds to fight infection, disease and trauma, sustained high levels of cytokines are associated with poorer health and such disorders as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s disease and clinical depression.

It has long been established that a healthy diet and lots of sleep and exercise bolster the body’s defenses against physical and mental illnesses. But the Berkeley study, whose findings were just published in the journal Emotion, is one of the first to look at the role of positive emotions in that arsenal.

“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study.

In two separate experiments, more than 200 young adults reported on a given day the extent to which they had experienced such positive emotions as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. Samples of gum and cheek tissue, known as oral mucosal transudate, taken that same day showed that those who experienced more of these positive emotions, especially awe, wonder and amazement, had the lowest levels of the cytokine, Interleukin 6, a marker of inflammation.

In addition to autoimmune diseases, elevated cytokines have been tied to depression. One recent study found that depressed patients had higher levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine known as TNF-alpha than their non-depressed counterparts. It is believed that by signaling the brain to produce inflammatory molecules, cytokines can block key hormones and neurotransmitters – such as serotonin and dopamine – that control moods, appetite, sleep and memory.

In answer to why awe would be a potent predictor of reduced pro-inflammatory cytokines, this latest study posits that “awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment,” Stellar said.

As for which came first – the low cytokines or the positive feelings – Stellar said she can’t say for sure: “It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions, or that the relationship is bidirectional,” Stellar said.

In addition to Stellar and Keltner, other co-authors and researchers on the study are Neha John-Henderson at the University of Pittsburgh and Craig Anderson, Amie Gordon and Galen McNeil at UC Berkeley.

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Memory expert receives Grawemeyer Award for Psychology

UC Irvine founding faculty member James McGaugh honored for learning, memory research.

UC Irvine neuroscientist and founding faculty member James McGaugh stands in front of the campus building that is named after him. (Photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine)

UC Irvine neurobiologist James McGaugh, whose research has vastly contributed to our knowledge of the brain’s learning and memory abilities, has won the 2015 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.

A research professor in neurobiology & behavior and a founding UCI faculty member, McGaugh is receiving the prize for discovering that stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol are key to why we remember some things more vividly than others.

The hormones activate the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala, which in turn regulates other brain areas that process and consolidate memories – a sequence that explains why emotional experiences are easier to recall, he found.

“His work has transformed the field,” said award director Woody Petry. “It has profound implications for helping us understand and treat memory disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”

McGaugh began studying the link between emotion and memory in the 1960s, when he discovered that giving stimulants to animals immediately after training fostered retention of the new skills. Later, he learned that naturally occurring stress hormones had a similar memory-enhancing effect.

Recently, McGaugh has been studying people with highly superior autobiographical memory to see if differences in brain structure may account for the trait.

“The list of previous Grawemeyer Award for Psychology recipients is remarkable,” he said. “It’s an honor to be included.”

Five Grawemeyer Award winners are being named this week. The University of Louisville presents the prizes annually for excellence in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology and education; it confers a religion prize jointly with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This year’s awards are $100,000 each.

UCI’s Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor of social ecology and professor of law, received the Grawemeyer Award for Psychology in 2005.

About James McGaugh

James McGaugh’s seminal work on emotion and memory has been featured on popular television programs such as CBS’s “60 Minutes,” described in dozens of textbooks, and cited about 31,000 times in more than 15,000 professional papers.

McGaugh joined UCI in 1964, a year before classes began. Over the ensuing decades, he served as executive vice chancellor, vice chancellor of academic affairs, dean of biological sciences and department chair, in addition to founding and directing the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory.

UCI named McGaugh Hall after him in 2001 and also awarded him the UCI Medal and established a neurobiology & behavior graduate research award of excellence in his name.

Among McGaugh’s many other honors are the Association for Psychological Science’s William James Fellow Award, the American Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions, the American Philosophical Society’s Karl Spencer Lashley Award, the Society of Experimental Psychologists’ Norman Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s John McGovern Lecture award, and the Western Psychological Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

A former president of the Association for Psychological Science, McGaugh is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Society for Neuroscience, the International Brain Research Organization, the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, the Society of Experimental Psychologists and the World Academy of Art & Science.

He also is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

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Tolman, behavior and academic freedom

UC Berkeley day of talks honors pioneering professor.

In Tolman Hall, Seth Rosenfeld, author of "Subversives," connected the dots from Edward Tolman's stand against the UC loyalty oath to the Free Speech Movement. (Photo by Barry Bergman, UC Berkeley)

If you’ve ever been to Tolman Hall, you probably reached it not by rigid adherence to a series of mechanical steps — start at West Circle, go up Hilgard Way, first right to the end of Morgan Hall, then first left and voila — but by navigating via the map in your head. That is, you pictured its location, and figured out a suitable route.

If you’d made the trip Monday, you would have learned it was the man who lent the aging psychology building his name, longtime UC Berkeley professor Edward Tolman, whose pre-World War II work with rats in mazes changed how we think about how we think. His groundbreaking insights laid the foundation for the discovery of what’s been called “the brain’s GPS” — the underlying neural machinery of the cognitive map — and this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Edward Moser, who shared the 2014 Nobel with his wife, May-Britt Moser, and John O’Keefe, gave the keynote address at Monday’s daylong celebration of Tolman’s legacy. While Moser and fellow neuroscientist David Foster, of Johns Hopkins University, gave technical presentations on their clinical research — with due credit to Tolman’s pioneering work in psychology — others highlighted his role as a pioneer in the realm of academic freedom.

In 1949, as McCarthyism raged, Tolman took a high-profile stand against the special “loyalty oath” demanded of UC employees by President Robert Gordon Sproul and the Board of Regents. Although he was fired, he not only won back his faculty position but was instrumental in winning the fight against the oath, which was ultimately found to be unconstitutional.

“The issue I am concerned with involves not communists but liberals,” explained Tolman, reading a letter to Sproul at a meeting of the Academic Senate. “For, when one reads the second part of the oath again, one discovers certain ambiguities of statement and meaning which would make it very difficult for many of us liberals to be certain just what we were being asked to commit ourselves to.”

He further objected that because only individuals can “believe,” it was dangerous to require faculty to disavow membership in organizations that “believe in” the overthrow of the U.S. government. This, he said, was “neither good psychology nor good civil rights.”

In 1963, the year before the Free Speech Movement — whose support from the Berkeley faculty, said author and journalist (and one-time Daily Cal reporter) Seth Rosenfeld, was an extension of the loyalty-oath fight — Berkeley’s new psychology building was dedicated in his name.

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The evolution of ‘anger face’

Researchers identify origin and purpose of the facial expression for anger.

The anger face is a constellation of features, each of which makes a person appear physically stronger. (iStock photo)

The next time you get really mad, take a look in the mirror. See the lowered brow, the thinned lips and the flared nostrils? That’s what social scientists call the “anger face,” and it appears to be part of our basic biology as humans.

Now, researchers at UC Santa Barbara and at Griffith University in Australia have identified the functional advantages that caused the specific appearance of the anger face to evolve. Their findings appear in the current online edition of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

“The expression is cross-culturally universal, and even congenitally blind children make this same face without ever having seen one,” said lead author Aaron Sell, a lecturer at the School of Criminology at Griffith University in Australia. Sell was formerly a postdoctoral scholar at UCSB’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology.

The anger expression employs seven distinct muscle groups that contract in a highly stereotyped manner. The researchers sought to understand why evolution chose those particular muscle contractions to signal the emotional state of anger.

The current research is part of a larger set of studies that examine the evolutionary function of anger. “Our earlier research showed that anger evolved to motivate effective bargaining behavior during conflicts of interest,” said Sell.

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Digital devices may be reducing young people’s social skills

Study finds sixth-graders read human emotions better after taking break from digital media.

Students in the study looked at photos and were tested on their ability to recognize the emotions of those pictured.

Children’s social skills may be declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction due to their increased use of digital media, according to a UCLA psychology study.

UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

“Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” said Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College and senior author of the study. “Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people — is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.”

The research will be in the October print edition of Computers in Human Behavior and is already published online.

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Aging brain influenced by experiences throughout life

Study from UC Davis and University of Victoria examines demographics and cognitive aging.

Early life experiences, such as childhood socioeconomic status and literacy, may have greater influence on the risk of cognitive impairment late in life than such demographic characteristics as race and ethnicity, a large study by researchers with the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the University of Victoria, Canada, has found.

“Declining cognitive function in older adults is a major personal and public health concern,” said Bruce Reed, professor of neurology and associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

“But not all people lose cognitive function, and understanding the remarkable variability in cognitive trajectories as people age is of critical importance for prevention, treatment and planning to promote successful cognitive aging and minimize problems associated with cognitive decline.”

The study, “Life Experiences and Demographic Influences on Cognitive Function in Older Adults,” is published online in Neuropsychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association. It is one of the first comprehensive examinations of the multiple influences of varied demographic factors early in life and their relationship to cognitive aging.

The research was conducted in a group of over 300 diverse men and women who spoke either English or Spanish. They were recruited from senior citizen social, recreational and residential centers, as well as churches and health-care settings. At the time of recruitment, all study participants were 60 or older, and had no major psychiatric illnesses or life threatening medical illnesses. Participants were Caucasian, African-American or Hispanic.

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New direction suggested for treating mental health disorders

Experts urge new discipline combining benefits of neuroscience, psychology treatments.

Michelle Craske, UCLA

When a patient talks with a psychological therapist, what changes occur in the patient’s brain that relieve mental disorders? UCLA psychology professor Michelle Craske says the honest answer is that we don’t know. But, according to Craske and two colleagues, we need to find out.

Mental health disorders — such as depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder and eating disorders — affect 1 in 4 people worldwide. Psychological treatments “hold the strongest evidence base for addressing many such conditions,” but they need improvement, according to a study by Craske, Cambridge University professor Emily Holmes and MIT professor Ann Graybiel.

Their article was published online July 16 in the journal Nature.

For some conditions, such as bipolar disorder, psychological treatments are not effective or are in their infancy, the life scientists report, and a “culture gap” between neuroscientists and clinical scientists has hindered the progress of mental health treatments. The authors call on scientists from both disciplines to work together to advance the understanding and treatment of psychological disorders.

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Being called ‘fat’ makes young girls more likely to become obese

Trying to be thin is like trying to be tall, say UCLA psychologists.

A. Janet Tomiyama, UCLA

Girls who are told by a parent, sibling, friend, classmate or teacher that they are too fat at age 10 are more likely to be obese at age 19, a new study by UCLA psychologists shows.

The study looked at 1,213 African-American girls and 1,166 white girls living in Northern California, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., 58 percent of whom had been told they were too fat at age 10. All the girls had their height and weight measured at the beginning of the study and again after nine years.

Overall, the girls labeled fat were 1.66 times more likely than the other girls to be obese at 19, the researchers found. They also found that as the number of people who told a girl she was fat increased, so did the likelihood that she would be obese nine years later. The findings appear in the June 2014 print issue of the journal JAMA Pediatrics and are published online April 28.

“Simply being labeled as too fat has a measurable effect almost a decade later. We nearly fell off our chairs when we discovered this,” said A. Janet Tomiyama, an assistant professor of psychology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and the study’s senior author. “Even after we statistically removed the effects of their actual weight, their income, their race and when they reached puberty, the effect remained.

“That means it’s not just that heavier girls are called too fat and are still heavy years later; being labeled as too fat is creating an additional likelihood of being obese.”

Co-author Jeffrey Hunger, a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, said that simply being called fat may lead to behaviors that later result in obesity.

“Being labeled as too fat may lead people to worry about personally experiencing the stigma and discrimination faced by overweight individuals, and recent research suggests that experiencing or anticipating weight stigma increases stress and can lead to overeating,” he said.

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Does a junk food diet make you lazy?

UCLA psychology study offers answer.

Aaron Blaisdell, UCLA

A new UCLA psychology study provides evidence that being overweight makes people tired and sedentary — not the other way around.

Life scientists led by UCLA’s Aaron Blaisdell placed 32 female rats on one of two diets for six months. The first, a standard rat’s diet, consisted of relatively unprocessed foods like ground corn and fish meal. The ingredients in the second were highly processed, of lower quality and included substantially more sugar — a proxy for a junk food diet.

After just three months, the researchers observed a significant difference in the amount of weight the rats had gained, with the 16 on the junk food diet having become noticeably fatter.

“One diet led to obesity, the other didn’t,” said Blaisdell, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute.

The experiments the researchers performed, Blaisdell said, also suggest that fatigue may result from a junk food diet.

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Brain-training research benefits batters

Study with UC Riverside baseball players significantly improves vision, reduces strikeouts.

Four words no baseball player wants to hear: Strike three. You’re out.

The UC Riverside’s baseball team heard those words less frequently in the 2013 season after participating in novel brain-training research that significantly improved the vision of individual players and may have added up to four or five games to the win column.

The results of that study appear in a paper, “Improved vision and on-field performance in baseball through perceptual learning,” published in today’s (Feb. 17) issue of the peer-reviewed Current Biology.

Most studies of visual abilities focus on mechanisms that might be used to improve sight, such as exercising the ocular muscles. Improvements in vision resulting from those experiments typically do not transfer to real-world tasks, however.

A team of UCR psychologists — professors Aaron Seitz and Daniel Ozer and recent Ph.D. graduate Jenni Deveau —  combined multiple perceptual-learning approaches to determine if improvements gained from an integrated, perceptual learning-based training program would transfer to real-world tasks.

They did.

Before the start of the 2013 NCAA Division 1 baseball season the UCR researchers assigned 19 baseball players to complete 30 25-minute sessions of a vision-training video game Seitz developed. Another 18 team members received no training. Players who participated in the training saw a 31 percent improvement in visual acuity — some gaining as much as two lines on the Snellen eye chart — and greater sensitivity to contrasts in light.

“The vision tests demonstrate that training-based benefits transfer outside the context of the computerized training program to standard eye charts,” Seitz said. “Players reported seeing the ball better, greater peripheral vision and an ability to distinguish lower-contrast objects.”

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Is stress contagious?

Study shows babies can catch it from their mothers.

Sara Waters, UC San Francisco

Babies not only pick up on their mother’s stress, but they also show corresponding physiological changes, according to a UC San Francisco-led study.

“Our research shows that infants ‘catch’ and embody the physiological residue of their mothers’ stressful experiences,” says lead researcher Sara Waters, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry.

The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“For many years now, social scientists have been interested in how emotions are transmitted from one person to another,” said senior author Wendy Berry Mendes, Ph.D., the Sarlo/Ekman Associate Professor of Emotion at UCSF.

Indeed, research in the social sciences has shown that emotions can be “contagious” and that there is emotional synchrony between romantic partners. The researchers wanted to extend this research by looking at emotional synchrony in the context of another close relationship: of mother and child.

“Our earliest lessons about how to manage stress and strong negative emotions in our day-to-day lives occur in the parent-child relationship,” said Waters.

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