From East Germany to Evanston: Haase Promoted to Associate Professor

From East Germany to Evanston: Haase Promoted to Associate Professor

Claudia HaaseNorthwestern University’s Claudia Haase, a developmental psychologist who studies pathways to happy and healthy development across the life span, was promoted to associate professor of human development and social policy in the School of Education and Social Policy beginning Sept. 1, 2020.

Haase, who grew up in former East Germany, focuses on how emotion and motivation shape our lives. Most recently, she has been studying young people who are at high risk for developing psychosis and people with neurodegenerative disease, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Growing up in the shadow of the Berlin Wall had a profound effect on Haase, who saw first-hand that some friends and neighbors felt hope and high spirits in the face of adversity, while others spiraled into despair. “These individual differences really stoked my interest in psychology,” Haase said.

Haase is part of a new generation of multidisciplinary researchers who studies emotion in real time. By using a variety of research methods —including facial coding, physiological monitoring, and neuroimaging — she has become a leader in the burgeoning field of affective science, where she examines the relationship between emotions and marital conflict, aging, health, and more.

“Claudia is an extremely skilled and gifted scientist,” said one of her mentors, Robert Levenson, professor of the Graduate School at the University of California at Berkeley, where Haase was a post-doctoral fellow. “One of her ‘super-powers’ as a researcher is her ability to see interesting and meaningful patterns in complex data sets that illuminate fundamental human issues.

“She has used this ability to discover deep and abiding truths about changes in emotion and motivation that occur with age and connect these to real world issues around health and well-being,” Levenson said.

Some of her latest work, published in the journal Psychological Science and led by alumna Emily Hittner (PhD20), suggests that the happier we feel, the less likely we are to experience memory decline.

“A growing body of research – including this longitudinal study – has found that feeling enthusiastic, cheerful, or proud is an important part of healthy aging,” Haase says.

Another set of longitudinal studies, published in the journal Motivation Science, found that people are better able to move on after failure if they experience positive emotions, are satisfied with their life, and believe it has purpose and meaning.

These findings add an important piece to the puzzle of human motivation, says Haase. “When we think of motivation, we often think of persistence and tenacity — but the ability to let go and move on when goals have become unattainable and dreams are broken is an important aspect of motivation as well.” 

Largely ignored by cognitive scientists until the 1980s, emotion research brings 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.

At UC-Berkeley, Haase resurrected an almost forgotten 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 she coauthored 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.

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.”

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 high risk 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

In the classroom, 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?” 

 

 

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 10/27/20