My research takes inspiration from four theoretical perspectives: predictive models of allostasis and interoception, lifespan development theory, constructionist theories of the mind, and affect-as-information theory.
Predictive models of allostasis & interoception
"The core task of all brains ... is to regulate the organism's internal milieu ... by anticipating needs and preparing to satisfy them before they arise." (Sterling & Laughlin, 2015, Principles of Neural Design, p. xvi). This is one of the foundational ideas behind allostasis--that the brain exists to fundamentally manage the body's resources and respond to environmental challenges. Allostasis is more than just regulating bodily systems around a set point (i.e., homeostasis). It is dynamic and predictive, meaning that the brain must first acquire and then constantly fine-tune its predictive models about incoming internal and external stimuli. These predictive models, as a fundamental part of allostasis, anticipate possible challenges to psychological and physiological regulation by drawing on prior knowledge and environmental cues. The predictive nature of allostasis forms the core of many modern theories on interoception (e.g., Barrett & Simmons, 2015; Fotopoulou & Tsakiris, 2017; Friston, 2010; Seth, 2013). Other work on the "Bayesian brain" demonstrates that much of sensory, linguistic, and conceptual development from infancy is rooted in "statistical learning" and that the brain and mind process stimuli via probabilistic, situated predictions.
Lifespan Development: Understanding Variation
Since Piaget, developmental psychology was dominated by a focus on early life. More recently, Baltes and others emphasize the importance of understanding processes across the whole lifespan from womb to tomb (ontogenesis). If we only study a given phenomenon in healthy young university students (and for that matter, in WEIRD samples), this limits, even distorts the scientific inferences we can make. Thus, any field is incomplete if it does not also consider ontogenesis. Taking interoception (a topic I study) as an example, the lifespan approach argues that we should care about three different aspects of development: (1) generalizable commonalities shared across individuals in development (e.g., how we all develop interoception), (2) inter-individual differences in development (e.g., some people, due to epigenetics, socialization, and different life experiences, develop better or poorer interoception), and (3) intraindividual plasticity in development (e.g., interoception may change across the lifespan, either as part of typical aging in the body and brain, or due to the accumulation of other life events and practices, such as high self control, mindfulness, disordered eating, a traumatic event, chronic stress, depression, etc.). Thus, in my own work, I always catch myself thinking about variation ... be it individual differences, developmental differences, or even cross-cultural differences.
constructing Emotions & The Mind
When I was an undergraduate debating whether I wanted to become a psychologist, linguist, or anthropologist, I stumbled across Barrett's 2006 paper on the "emotion paradox" which laid the groundwork for a modern constructionist account of emotions. Modern constructionist theories, such as the Theory of Constructed Emotion, generally hypothesize that all mental events including emotions arise from the dynamic coaction of more basic "core" networks in the brain. These core networks give rise to several key "ingredients" (like different ingredients in a cake)--such as affect (valence/arousal, rooted in allostasis and interoception), knowledge from prior experiences and shared culture, and executive functions such as attentional control--to create within- and between-person variability in emotions and other mental states. The constructionist approach seeks to explain the myriad variations in human experience and behavior, while still building generalizable findings that can be used to improve people's lives. This approach is also data-driven, supported by numerous meta-analyses summarizing across literatures such as neuroimaging and psychophysiology. I adopted this theoretical approach because it marries together predictive models of allostasis and interoception with an emphasis on variation--be it individual, developmental, or cross-cultural. Beyond the theoretical inspiration of constructionist models, this interdisciplinary approach allows me to study humans as complex systems transecting multiple levels of analysis, from hormones and the gut microbiome, to peripheral psychophysiology and the brain, and beyond to the mind, behavior, and environment. My hope is that this multi-method approach will generate new insights that these methods on their own could not identify.
Following the Inner Compass: Affect-as-information
Since the world's first literatures (or earlier), humans have debated whether gut feelings help us navigate the world around us, like a compass, or if feelings lead us astray. Affect-as-information theory is a variant on this idea--that we use our feelings to inform our perceptions and behaviors about the world around us, especially when we are not paying attention to said feelings. There is no "good" or "bad" to affect-as-information per se--sometimes our affective feelings are useful heuristics, other times they might lead us astray. I was first inspired by this theory when researching how people become hangry as part of my masters thesis. In a series of experiments, we found that hunger doesn't just automatically make people angrier. Context (mood congruence) and where someone's attention or awareness is directed (internal vs. external) can make all the difference. Affect-as-information theory resonates with some of the core predictions of allostasis / interoception and constructionist theories. To truly understand how the body can bottom-up shape emotions and social cognition, affect-as-information could be a useful framework to reveal how allostasis, as the root of feelings, can interact with different situations and attentional foci to drive attributions and perceptions. Also related to the idea that interoception can drive intuitive decision-making.