My PhD focused on the perception of emotional body language and innovated the field of affective neuroscience that was characterized by an almost exclusive focus on facial expressions. I showed that the brain processes body movements similarly as facial expressions but also initiate clear action patterns. I argued that body language is evolutionary seen older than facial expressions and inspired by Darwin’s work on emotions and by contemporary primatologists, I experimentally tested this statement in a group of chimpanzees at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute. I demonstrated that many of the facets constituting emotion processing are evolutionary ancient, and shared with chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest living relatives. For all social species, the capacity to express, recognize and share emotions enables individuals to navigate their social worlds and forms a core component of what it means to be socially competent and healthy. However, many patients with mental disorders show impaired social skills including avoidance of eye contact, hyper-arousal, less emotional mimicry, and deficits in emotion recognition, and suffer from social isolation. I showed that patients with different mental disorders have similar emotion processing deficits but that specific symptomatic patterns in mental disorders may vary with the cultural background of an individual. This observation sparked my interest in expressions that are genuine, beyond control and automatic, and I started differentiating between emotional signals, those that are controllable and sometimes learned, and emotional cues, which are more automatic. In my NWO VENI project I focused on one particular emotional cue, the pupil. I showed that people mimic pupil size and that pupil mimicry, through interactions between subcortical areas and the Theory of Mind network, fosters decisions of trust. Together with my PhD student E. Prochazkova, I designed a ‘Neurocognitive Model of Emotional Contagion’, proposing a pathway for motor mimicry, and, for the first time in the literature, for autonomic mimicry. Recently, I started investigating facial mimicry and pupil mimicry during dyadic interactions in controlled settings in the lab with PhD student F. Behrens, but also beyond controlled settings, e.g., at Lowlands festival. This work has extend to a broad research program supported by an ERC Starting Grant that aims to understand what is being expressed when, what function that has, how it works from a mechanistic viewpoint, how that might have developed over the human life course and how it evolved. Mapping out deficits in patients with autism and social anxiety disorder help us understand how these phenomena work in healthy individuals (NWO VIDI). In sum, my research focuses on emotion processing, pupil-mimicry, their neurophysiological underpinnings and implications for social decision making in humans as well as in great apes.
Areas of Expertise
Comparative cognition, evolutionary psychology, emotion perception, mimicry and synchronization, great apes, social anxiety and depression, fMRI, psychophysiology, multi-level modeling, citizen science.
For my Curriculum Vitae, click here.
Intimate moments with Alpha-female Ai in the lab at
the Kyoto University Primate Research Unit, 2014