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Current Lines of Research

The Impact of Emotion on Cognition and Human Performance 

Emotion has a tremendous impact on our behaviour, sometimes enhancing performance, but other times contributing to human error in dangerous contexts. In addition, emerging work suggests that some thought processes and behaviours are remarkably resilient to emotional contexts. The effect that emotion has on brain and behaviour seems to depend on a number of factors that are poorly understood. The goal of this line of research is to determine how the human brain prioritizes and controls the influence of emotional information and stress to optimize behavioural and cognitive performance. In addition, we identify factors and mechanisms associated with optimizing performance in emotionally charged environments. The work has implications for designing instruments and operating panels for equipment used in stressful environments (e.g., emergency response and defence), and for training and selecting personnel that use this equipment.

Individual differences in empathy and social cognition in the general population 

Even among healthy, typically developing people, individual differences in empathic processes can have a significant impact on social and occupational functioning. What is becoming increasingly clear is that low trait empathy is one of the strongest predictors of aggression and antisocial behaviour. This line of research aims to advance knowledge about how individual differences in distinct subtypes of empathy interact with other cognitive and situational factors to govern social behaviour in healthy adults. Ultimately, it will help identify factors that increase or reduce empathic responding in people, and provide clues about how current practices in education, the media, and entertainment might affect the development of prosocial and antisocial behaviours.

Modulating empathy in disorders featuring clinically significant levels of social dysfunction

The long-term goals of this line of research is to: a) delineate the neurobiological abnormalities associated with empathic disorders that increase the risk for violence or other antisocial behaviours; and b) use this knowledge together with the tools of cognitive neuroscience to help identify and test newly emerging diagnostic, preventative, and therapeutic measures for empathic disorders. Using neuroimaging and behavioural techniques, we are currently examining novel pharmacological and behavioural interventions to increase psychosocial functioning in patients with frontotemporal dementia, a disorder with pronounced empathy impairments. We are also examining whether new behavioural techniques, derived from recent advances in fundamental cognitive neuroscience work, can increase indices of empathic responding in youth with severe behavioural difficulties at both a neural and behavioural level.