How people experience emotion may affect their mental health, and Psychology Department students and faculty are conducting research to shed light on emotional differences.

Emotions are complex because they involve a combination of bodily responses, such as heart rate, sweat response, and brain activity; subjective feelings--good or bad, happy or sad; and behaviors such as smiling when content or running when scared, according to Psychology Professor Michael Suvak, who directs the department's Personality, Emotion, and Social Processes Lab..

“In our lab, we are interested in understanding differences in how … people experience and represent emotions, a characteristic that is referred to as emotional granularity or emotion differentiation,” he said.

Professor Michael Suvak, with students Kate Smidt and Caitlin Chiupka, demonstrates methods for collecting data on emotional responses“Research has shown that some people are able to make nuanced distinctions between similar emotions,” said Suvak. “For example, there are those individuals who are clearly able to distinguish annoyance from anger, while others experience emotions in a more broad or global manner and can’t get much more detailed than saying they’re feeling good or bad.”

Emotion & mental disorder

“One of our goals in studying emotions is to understand how emotions contribute to different mental disorders,” said Suvak. “There is some research that suggests a number of psychological diagnoses [such as depression and borderline personality disorder] are associated with a decreased ability to make a fine-grained distinction among emotional states. In other words, low levels of emotional granularity.”

In addition to research on emotions, the Suvak team is keenly focused on adaptation following trauma.

To collect data, the Suffolk researchers ask study participants to complete a wide range of tasks designed to trigger an array of emotional responses, from unpleasant to pleasant and from mild to intense. Psychophysiological testing collects information on bodily responses, such as changes in heart rate, sweat response, and muscle activity in the face.

Interplay of science & practice

Student Kate Smidt’s research is focused on emotional granularity because she believes that discoveries in that area can be applied to a diverse set of clinical populations.

Smidt is the recipient of the Psychology Department’s 2014 Dissertation Award, presented to the student who is most likely to make a valuable contribution to the field of psychology.

“Throughout my graduate training I have learned a wide variety of experimental methods and the importance of the interplay between science and clinical work,” said Smidt. “I want to continue to learn and to be able to integrate my research into practice.”

Trauma research

The Suvak team’s work on adaptation following trauma is conducted primarily through collaborations with colleagues at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, located in the VA Boston Healthcare System in Jamaica Plain, where Smidt works as a clinical assessor, and the Trauma Center in Brookline.

Some people recover relatively quickly with no long lasting effects after being exposed to a traumatic event, such as combat, a car accident or an assault. Others develop substantial psychological problems, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or substance abuse issues.

“We are all in this to better understand the emotional tendencies of people to hopefully inform treatments for psychological disorders,” said Suvak. “And we attempt to do this by conducting the most scientifically rigorous research possible.”

Professor Gabrielle Liverant, a new faculty member with expertise on how emotions contribute to mental disorders, recently joined Suvak’s research group. The two already had collaborated on research and have co-published findings.

Student-faculty connections

Student Ally Dick appreciates the teamwork between faculty and students.

“The faculty is very committed to teaching and seems to genuinely care about students’ learning,” said Dick. “My research mentor [Suvak] is extremely dedicated to helping his students attain their goals.”