Access our COVID-19 Well-Being Toolkit and Resources

Signup for our Newsletter!

Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest news and updates.

Cognitive Control and the Regulation of Emotion, Attention and Pain

Image by 7activestudio via iStockPhoto

Does a person’s ability to regulate attention and working memory also predict his or her ability to regulate emotion and pain? Are people who are better at controlling their attention and emotion in a laboratory setting more successful at carrying that skill into daily life, producing more positive emotion and less negative emotion?

This study seeks to answer these questions to better understand emotion regulation and how it could benefit mental health at the individual and societal levels.

More than 1,700 research participants completed an initial screening session involving a computerized working memory capacity task called the operation span. From that group, around 100 participants scoring in either the top or bottom 10 percent were invited to partake in two full days of testing in the laboratory, where they performed various tasks to gain a full picture of each of their cognitive and regulatory abilities.

These tasks expanded on cognitive measures taken during initial screening and included psychophysiological measures of both instructed and uninstructed emotion regulation, as well as instructed pain regulation. For example, participants’ facial muscle activity, skin conductance, respiration and heart rate were recorded while they watched a series of unpleasant, pleasant and neutral pictures while researchers recorded participants’ spontaneous facial movements. In the instructed paradigm, participants were explicitly asked to increase or decrease their emotional responses to the pictures; in the uninstructed paradigm, the team measured participants’ normal patterns of response.

The amount of facial muscle activity is used as an objective measure of a person’s emotional reactivity and can also be used to indicate recovery processes, including how long it takes to return to a baseline level after picture offset. Participants also completed Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests, attention measurements while their brain activity was recorded and a cognitive assessment (CANTAB) that looked at emotional response biases, rule learning, risk-taking, impulsivity and decision-making through a gambling paradigm, for example. Between sessions, participants in the study completed three-day reconstructions at home to provide information about their daily lives such as how much they sleep, who they spend time with, their activities, and, most importantly, the emotions and moods they experienced.

The findings from this study are currently being prepared for publication.

People Working on This Study

Richard J. Davidson
Founder, Center for Healthy Minds & Healthy Minds Innovations, William James & Vilas Professor of Psychology & Psychiatry
Lauren Gresham
Research Program Manager, Institute on Aging
Regina Lapate
Regina Lapate
Postdoctoral Fellow, UC-Berkeley
Stacey Schaefer
Stacey M. Schaefer
Leader of MIDUS Neuroscience Project and Co-Leader of MIDUS Admin Core, Institute on Aging
Give Now
Support the Research
Are you interested in taking part in scientific research?
Learn More