Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Spring 2018

Emily Hittner

Emily Hittner, a lifespan developmental psychobiologist, studies stress and emotion across a lifetime with SESP faculty members Claudia Haase and Emma Adam.

Kaeleen Drummey

Kaeleen Drummey, an observational coding behavioral consultant, leads a Specific Affect Coding System (SPAFF) workshop at Annenberg Hall.

The Science of Emotions


By Julie Deardorff
Science of Emotion

Claudia Haase has been fascinated by the power of emotions ever since her childhood in former East Germany.

Living in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, Haase puzzled over what became a central question behind her research: Why did some friends and neighbors feel hope and high spirits in the face of adversity, while others spiraled into despair?

By studying emotions in real time and using a variety of research methods—including facial coding and physiological monitoring—Haase is breaking new ground in the burgeoning field of affective science, where she examines the relationship between emotions and marital conflict, health, aging, mental illness, and more. At the same time, she’s inspiring like-minded students to follow in her footsteps.

“ Anybody who has been in the throes of emotions knows they are powerful, and it’s important to understand them,” says Haase, a life-span developmental psychologist and assistant professor of human development and social policy.

“Classrooms, work settings and family relations are hotbeds of emotions. But what is an emotion? What happens in the body when an emotion is triggered? And why do emotions matter?”

Largely ignored by cognitive scientists until the 1980s, emotion research attempts to answer these questions and more. By bringing together a wide range of fields that have long been studied in isolation—including psychology, neuroscience, and psychiatry—scientists have gleaned new insights into everything from happiness and inflammation to mental health and marriage.

“Emotions are fundamental to life; they drive what we do,” says Paul Ekman, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, who pioneered the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions. “Because of emotions, for example, people will overeat, or not eat at all and starve to death. Emotions overwhelm thought.”

Haase, part of a new generation of broadlytrained, multidisciplinary scientists, cut her teeth as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, under the tutelage of Robert W. Levenson, another leader in the field of emotion research.

At UC-Berkeley, Haase resurrected an almostforgotten 20-year longitudinal study on marriage that has yielded several important research findings. One linked a gene to positive emotional expressions such as smiling and laughing, suggesting that emotional reactivity may partly lie in a person’s DNA.

Another study connected emotion to physical health after the researchers found that angry outbursts are tied to heart problems. Conversely, people who stonewall—or shut down during conflict—had a higher risk of suffering from an aching back or stiff muscles, according to the research published in the journal Emotion.

“Claudia has a very good scientific nose,” Levenson says. “A less imaginative person would have thought the data set was dusty, but she saw the promise of it, and those data continue to be useful.

“She’s fearless; that’s her most remarkable quality,” Levenson adds. “She has the courage of her own convictions and ideas and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.”

The face: A mirror of the mind

Inside the Life-Span Development Laboratory, Haase’s team observes and records emotions as they’re happening. In some cases, participants sit in easy chairs and watch clips from potential tearjerkers such as “The Titanic” and “21 Grams.” Or they may be prompted to discuss happy memories or topics of disagreement with a partner.

Volunteers are wired with physiological sensors and videotaped during the session; trained coders later glean more information by analyzing the miniscule movements made by some of the 42 muscles in the face.

Someone who feels angry, for example, might press their lips together, knit their brows or tighten their jaw. Stonewallers might show “away” behavior, which includes facial stiffness, rigid neck muscles, and little or no eye contact.

“Emotions can manifest in many different ways,” Haase says. “Your facial expressions may change, your heart may start racing, and you may start feeling mad.”

Sophomore Jordyn Ricard, who took Haase’s “Emotional Mysteries” class, was so intrigued by emotional research that she became the first lab member to be certified in facial coding.

Ricard, who plans to become a psychiatrist, also has received three undergraduate research grants and is using behavioral coding to study stonewalling and other emotions, including sadness, anger, interest and joy, among diverse couples.

“Emotions guide everything about our lives in different ways,” Ricard says. “If we ignore emotions, we’re ignoring the core ways we react and respond to others.”

Emotions play a prominent role in several of Haase’s latest projects that are funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and the Retirement Research Foundation. One looks at whether certain emotion regulation strategies can benefit cognition by giving older adults strategies that might help them see the silver lining or embrace their feelings in difficult and joyful moments.

Another, a collaboration with Northwestern psychologist Dr. Vijay Mittal and his lab, explores whether emotional interactions between highrisk youth and their loved ones can predict mental health.

That joint project with Mittal brings adolescents and parents into the lab to discuss areas of disagreement, things they enjoy doing together, and events of the day. Both participants will be monitored for natural body signals, facial expressions, and asked about their emotional experiences. Saliva samples will allow researchers to evaluate epigenetic markers of physical health.

 “We’re zooming in on emotional functioning by looking at a context that is fraught with a lot of opportunities and challenges: Interactions between youth and parents,” Haase says. “We look at what goes on physiologically in the body and in the face; who becomes agitated and who remains calm. There is very little research on interactions between high-risk adolescents and parents using these kinds of methods.”

An antidote to narcissism

Haase created “Emotional Mysteries” as a Searle Fellow after realizing there was nothing like it on campus. Throughout the quarter, Haase introduces students to everything from Charles Darwin’s work on emotional expressions in man and animals to the latest studies.

The class discusses “awe” (an antidote to narcissism) after viewing Planet Earth, identifies important scientific insights hidden in the movie Inside Out, and challenges students to develop a proposal for an emotion intervention as a final paper.

Haase also sprinkles in mini-experiments, to see if exercises like meditation or yoga can help change how students are feeling.

Emotions, she has found, are a universal language that can transcend cultures.

“Imagine a little child back in East Germany,” Haase says. “You may have never met this child and you may not speak the same language. But you may still be able to connect, as they cry in sadness, burst with laughter, or open their eyes in wonder. Wouldn’t you want to know why?”

Claudia Haase

"Classrooms, work settings, and family relations are hotbeds of emotions. But what is an emotion?"

Claudia Haase Assistant Professor of Human Development and Social Policy