Our lab strives to understand, measure, and therapeutically target the psychological processes that engender and maintain prevalent forms of mental suffering including anxiety, depression, fear, and distress. We often have good reason to suffer – life is riddled with trauma, loss, and uncertainty. Yet, paradoxically, these forms of suffering are often amplified by our own thoughts, memories, prospection, and fear of our own mind and body. Our work has thus focused on how mental (ill) health is shaped by the ways in which people experience and respond to their internal states (e.g., thought, emotion).
My early program of research focused on the nature and function of emotional sensitivity and tolerance in anxiety, addiction, and related disorders; and efforts to translate these insights to novel therapeutic interventions. This work helped to advance the field’s understanding of the nature of emotional sensitivity and tolerance and its function(s) in prevalent forms of psychopathology and addiction, the capacity to experimentally model this phenomenon in the lab, the precision and ecological-validity of its measurement, and the development of a novel intervention targeting emotional sensitivity and tolerance in anxiety-addiction comorbidity.
Current & Future Research
First, we are working to illuminate the nature and function of attentional (dys)regulation in suffering and mental health; and to translate these insights to novel therapeutic interventions. Attention is an emergent property of the competition for cognitive processing resources that functions to select and modulate the processing of information most relevant to adaptation in the moment. Across disciplinary and thought traditions, illuminating the nature of attention has long been thought as key to illuminating the workings of mental life and health. In pursuit of transformative progress revealing the long-sought promise of attention for better understanding mental life and health, our work has challenged decades-old assumptions of the field about attention (dys)regulation in mental health, how it is measured and studied, and how to therapeutically target it. Specifically, we proposed a novel way to conceptualize, measure and quantify biased attentional processing – as a dynamic process, expressed from moment-to-moment in real-time; and linked these dynamic features of attentional dysregulation to the etiology and maintenance of multiple prevalent forms of mental ill health. We then translated these insights to a novel experimental intervention technology – Attention Feedback Awareness and Control Training (A-FACT) – to modify biased attentional processing as it unfolds from moment to moment in real-time. A-FACT is designed to train meta-awareness and thereby control over typically unmonitored and involuntary (attentional) habits of our mind’s eye that sub-serve prevalent forms of mental ill health. We are now working to develop a novel experimental paradigm to directly measure covert attentional processing of emotional information as it is expressed dynamically in real-time. Moreover, we have begun to tackle the long-sought ecologically- and phenomenologically-valid measurement of biased internal attention (e.g., to self-referential thoughts) that may be fundamental to multiple prevalent forms of psychological disorder.
Second, we are working to better understand present moment attention and awareness or mindfulness and the mechanisms through which it contributes to mental health. Mindfulness research represents an exciting domain of basic and clinical science at the nexus of attention, consciousness, and mental health. Grounded in Buddhist thought and philosophy of mind, mindfulness entails meditative practices and related mental states characterized by meta-awareness – awareness of the processes occurring in consciousness (e.g., thinking, feeling, sensing). Yet, the field’s capacity to rigorously study mindfulness, to reveal mechanism by which mindfulness impacts mental health, and to map the neurophysiology of mindful states will be significantly accelerated by means of transformative advances in the methods/technology used to measure these processes. Indeed, mindfulness research has been largely dependent on subjective self-report measurement methods (e.g., questionnaires) or inferred from experimental instructions or functional brain activation (e.g., reverse inference). Accordingly, my students and I are working to (a) identify and conceptually characterize key cognitive and affective processes integral to mindfulness and its mechanism of action (e.g., decentering, meta-awareness, experiential self-referential processing, equanimity); (b) to develop novel cognitive-experimental and behavioral methods to measure these processes (e.g., via novel implicit cognition methods, signal detection theory methods, laboratory analogue experimental methods, intensive experience sampling in daily living); and (c) to apply these novel methods to rigorously study the practice and process of mindfulness and its mediating mechanisms of action for mental health. Our work is beginning to advance field-wide efforts to illuminate key components of mindfulness, to elucidate therapeutic mechanisms by which mindfulness impacts mental life and suffering, and in turn, to advance our capacity to prevent the onset and reduce the persistence of prevalent forms of mental ill health.
Third, we continue our work to elucidate how psychological processing of internal states (e.g., thought, emotion), particularly those characterized by negative hedonic tone (e.g., fear, distress), contributes to suffering and mental health. We are working to elucidate a functional network of psychological processes – including meta-awareness, identification with experience, reactivity to thought content, (in)tolerance of emotion – that contribute to mental (ill) health; to develop novel cognitive-experimental and behavioral methods to measure these processes in the lab and real-world environment; and to develop novel means to therapeutically target these processes.
Fourth, in an ambitious effort to apply our lab’s work to a critical public mental health crisis, we are working to develop novel means to improve the mental health of survivors of mass atrocities and violent conflict. Mass displacement due to civil war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide currently affect more nearly 60 million people worldwide. Although rates of trauma- and stress-related mental health problems are high among these refugees and asylum seekers, only a small proportion receive mental health treatment, let alone interventions grounded in a strong evidence-base. The success of the global community of policy makers, NGOs and practitioners depends, in large part, on the scientific community’s capacity to develop innovative, effective, low-cost, and easily implemented tools to prevent and treat the severe mental health consequences of the global refugee crisis. Accordingly, my team and I founded a small satellite laboratory embedded in the heart of the East African refugee community in Israel – where we have focused our work on trauma recovery among survivors of genocide and torture survivors from E. African nations (e.g., S. Sudan, Eritrea). In close partnership with members of the refugee community in Israel and NGOs dedicated to the human rights and health of these populations, we are working to advance this emerging area of research and practice in the following ways: (a) We have begun to identify promising intervention targets by isolating malleable bio-psycho-behavioral processes that contribute to the development and persistence of mental ill health, trauma recovery and resilience. (b) We have begun to develop and test targeted, innovative, low-cost, and disseminable interventions to facilitate trauma recovery and the promotion of mental health (e.g., socio-culturally adapted mindfulness-based intervention for mental health promotion and recovery among refugees). (c) We have begun to explore ways to to implement and evaluate the effects of these novel interventions within challenging real-world settings (e.g., free clinics, refugee camps, re-settlement communities). (d) We have actively worked to increase awareness of this issue among the clinical psychological science community, the general public, and among (inter)national policy makers; as well as to help advance refugees’ human right to mental health through collaboration on science-based advocacy work with NGOs. I hope that our work with these populations will make an important contribution to an emerging clinical psychological science of refugee global mental health; and, in turn, meaningfully contribute to the emerging global effort to heal the public mental health crisis that has so severely scarred the lives of millions of forcibly displaced survivors of atrocities and violent conflict.