Unlocking the secrets of the human brain

Researchers in The Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences are using cutting-edge techniques to help us weather the challenges of everyday life.

Illustration by Daniel Fishel

Human behaviors and emotions can be as complex as any force of nature. From our biggest life choices to the subtle thoughts we barely notice, our minds are always at work. 

Inspired by the thoughts and emotions that drive our everyday lives, faculty in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences (PBS) are finding new ways to study the mind. From leveraging the power of cell phones for real-time monitoring to deploying sophisticated imaging techniques to better understand brain activity, this nationally recognized department is pushing scientific boundaries in a major way. 

“Our field is very dynamic, with new theories and methods coming online every day and broadening our view of the human condition,” said Jeff Zacks, department chair and the Edgar James Swift Professor in Arts & Sciences. “Increasingly, we’re going outside of the lab and into the brain.” 

This multifaceted approach has paid off. In the last year alone, PBS researchers have published a slew of attention-grabbing studies covering topics including our surprising motivations for morality, the stark rural-urban personality divide, and the mental maps we build to navigate our world. “The department is going in a lot of exciting directions,” Zacks said.

Arts & Sciences researchers have the motivation, resources, and opportunities to gain new insights into human thoughts and behavior, said Todd Braver, the William R. Stuckenberg Professor in Human Values and Moral Development. 

“People go into this field because they are fascinated — and often mystified — by human behavior,” Braver said. “We’re interested in supporting each other and creating an environment where we can all do our best work.”

Mindful attention

Braver is the lead investigator of a massive project designed to study the brain’s ability to pay attention to complicated tasks — a pursuit with implications for nearly everyone. 

The project is expected to last five years with a total budget of about $8.8 million from the U.S. Department of Defense. Among other things, researchers will use both functional MRI and EEG methods to study how stress affects our ability to pay attention to details. 

“The Navy cares about this because their jobs often require complete focus, such as monitoring radar screens,” Braver said. But the findings will likely be relevant for a civilian population, too. “We hope it will have real, practical implications to help anyone reach their full potential.”

Illustration by Daniel Fishel

Other members of the multi-national team include Assistant Professor Wouter Kool and Professor Julie Bugg, both in psychological and brain sciences. 

Sometimes, we also need to turn our attention inward. Many WashU researchers study and promote mindfulness, the practice of being aware of one’s emotions and physical state. Braver is a co-leader of the Mindfulness Science and Practice research cluster, part of the Incubator for Transdisciplinary Futures (ITF), a signature initiative of the Arts & Sciences Strategic Plan. Among their many goals, researchers in the cluster are trying to modernize the time-honored approach to mental wellness. 

With support from ITF co-directors William Acree and Betsy Sinclair, the mindfulness cluster is developing a smartphone app that will ask people to report their mental state in real time. The app will also have users periodically practice a two-minute exercise to encourage mindful awareness of their current mood and physical state. Follow-up assessments could see if the mindfulness exercises have any lasting impact in improving mood and awareness. “It’s a very direct way to ask how people are feeling and behaving at a given moment,” Braver said.

Examining emotions in real time

Smartphone check-ins are already playing a crucial role in the work of other PBS researchers. “This approach allows us to repeatedly survey participants in naturalistic settings, resulting in rich data sets for each individual,” explained Associate Professor Renee Thompson

Thompson and Associate Professor Tammy English used smartphone check-ins for a 2023 study that found people with major depression worked hard throughout the day to manage their feelings — a finding contrary to what some people may expect. “This study provides evidence against the stereotype that depressed people may not be very proactive about how they feel,” Thompson said.

Thompson and English, frequent collaborators since they both joined WashU a decade ago, are currently working with Braver on a five-year, $2.8 million National Institutes of Health study to better understand how people with and without major depressive disorder regulate their emotions and how those strategies change across adulthood.

“It’s the perfect blending of our labs,” Thompson said. “I have expertise in depression, Tammy has expertise in aging, and Todd brings in the expertise of imaging.”

The project will take a multi-pronged approach to investigating how people manage their emotions, including smartphone check-ins, clinical interviews, standardized laboratory tasks, and brain imaging. To better understand how participants manage emotions, fMRI images will be taken while participants look at emotion-inducing pictures.

“There’s a lot of evidence that emotional wellbeing tends to improve with age,” English said. “Older people often have to cope with loss and dwindling cognitive resources, but they’re able to maintain their life satisfaction. We’re trying to figure out their secret.”

Understanding how older people manage their emotions could help researchers improve therapies for patients of all ages. “Perhaps we’ll be able to find something that can help people who are suffering,” English said.

Phenomena of daily life

Zacks’s own work focuses on the different ways people perceive everyday events. He’s especially interested in how the brain arranges the often-chaotic world into a series of tidy vignettes with well-defined beginnings and ends. 

Illustration by Daniel Fishel

“If you ask people to tell you about what's going on in their lives, they tend to list a sequence of events,” he said. “This first-person view really tells us about the machinery behind how we respond to our world, how we remember things, and how we plan for the future.” Understanding how the brain performs these tricks could potentially lead to new techniques for improved learning and memory, he added.

Zacks, Braver, and Aaron Bobick, dean of the McKelvey School of Engineering, advised PBS graduate student Tan Nguyen and Arts & Sciences senior scientist Matt Bezdek on a study that trained a computer model to observe realistic scenes of daily life, such as a person cooking and cleaning in a kitchen. “The model generated predictions about what was going to happen next, and it was always monitoring how well those predictions were working out,” Zacks said.

As the model trained on recordings of real people doing real activities, it grew increasingly accurate in its predictions. “It could understand human activity on a human scale and make intelligent guesses about what somebody was going to do next,” Zacks said. 

Those insights included the ability to estimate its own uncertainty. The model wasn’t always confident in its projections, Zacks said, and when it felt especially unsure, it would reassess its approach to the scene. The brain likely takes a similar approach to the world, he said, by pausing to rethink a situation before deciding how to move forward. “This is a scientifically exciting finding that goes against our expectations,” he said.

The power of teamwork

As chair of the department, Zacks oversees a diverse group of talented faculty members with different styles and approaches. “We have a great mix of established researchers and junior faculty,” Zacks said. 

Earlier this year, five faculty members received an impressive array of accolades from top professional associations. Assistant professors Jessie Sun, Emily Willroth, and Zachariah Reagh all received prestigious early-career recognition, and associate professors Calvin Lai and Renee Thompson were named fellows of the Association for Psychological Science.

The department has also grown its cohort of postdoctoral researchers over the past decade. “They have really energized our programs,” Zacks said. 

WashU’s culture of collaboration has played a crucial role in the department’s success. Psychological and brain sciences researchers frequently work together on projects, and they also tap into expertise across campus. For example, Thompson, English, Braver, and other researchers studying aging often work with Brian Gordon in the School of Medicine. Gordon studies how biomarkers of Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases, detected in blood samples, can be used to predict changes in brain function and cognition. 

“The lore has always been that cognitive abilities inevitably decline as we get older,” Braver said. But that theory might apply only to people with neurodegenerative diseases. “If your brain is healthy and stays free from all these biomarkers, you might be able to maintain the same cognitive abilities in your 70s and 80s that you had in your 30s or 40s.”

In this and other areas of research, PBS scholars are pushing the boundaries of conventional wisdom to understand what’s going on in our brains and in our daily lives. “We’re dedicated to the research and collection of data on cognition and behavior across the human lifespan and outside of the laboratory,” Braver said. “We’re not going to just accept simple explanations.”

Mental Notes

Psychological and brain sciences scholars published dozens of attention-grabbing studies in the last year. Here are a few highlights:

  • Professor Deanna Barch reported some infants pay little attention to frowns and other negative facial cues, an empathy gap that could have significant implications for their social and behavioral development. (Study)
  • Associate Professor Joshua Jackson and graduate student Amanda Wright found that five key personality traits in parents can significantly affect their child’s health, grades, and more. (Story | Study)
  • Assistant Professor Emily Willroth conducted a study suggesting people in rural areas face unique challenges that may shape their personalities and psychological well-being. (Story | Study)
  • Assistant Professor Seanna Leath explored the psychological benefits of an after-school program for Black teenage girls. (Story | Study)
  • Postdoctoral researcher Matt Welhaf and Professor Julie Bugg revealed when older people let their minds wander, they’re more likely to be distracted by pleasant thoughts than worries. (Story | Study)
  • Professor Richard Abrams and graduate student Xiaojin Ma discovered that, in some situations, distractions can help the brain focus on a target. (Story | Study)