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Exploring how we think, feel and socialize: A look into mental health research at Duke

March 19, 2024 | By Winston Qian
Originally published by The Chronicle


Exploring all the different aspects of how we think, feel and socialize, Duke researchers have been hard at work understanding and tackling the challenges that face people’s mental wellbeing. The Chronicle took a look at just a few projects currently in the works:

Motivational states on learning, memory

A Duke research team published a study in July exploring how different motivations can drastically influence a person’s memory, thinking habits and mental health. 

The team included Alyssa Sinclair, a current postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who completed her doctoral studies at Duke, doctoral student Candice Yuxi Wang and Rachel Alison Adcock, the interim director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. 

“People that study learning, modeling it formally, have tended to assume that you could describe learning rates for reinforcement depending on what the incentive was, whether it was big or small,” Adcock said. “But the state of mind essentially, was not considered in how quickly people learned.”

The research team used a virtual game modeling an art museum heist to simulate a curiosity mindset and an urgency mindset. 

“In both cases, the payoff they got was the same in terms of the game,” Adcock said. “You learn where things are, you come back the next day, you get your money, and that was true for both people. The only thing that was different was what they were pretending to do in the game.” 

Despite having the same rewards, results showed that the urgency group was better at finding doors that revealed more valuable paintings, while curious participants were better at remembering familiar paintings the next day. 

“There are many situations where the kind of urgency you might feel gets in the way of acquiring more information and coming to an adaptive solution in the longer term,” Adcock said. “In a lot of psychotherapies, what we're doing is trying to create space for people to lower the stakes in a given situation and get a little more curious about what are the possible outcomes.” 

Analyzing the health impacts of mindfulness

Moria Smoski, associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and doctoral student Joseph Diehl, are leading a Bass Connections research project aimed at discovering the effects of mind wandering and practicing mindfulness, including anxiety and depression. 

According to Smoski, when people regularly engage in practices to increase mindfulness, their risk for depression and anxiety decreases. 

In the second semester of the project, the research team is preparing to recruit study participants. To collect data on mindfulness and mind wandering, the team has implemented several approaches. 

“We ask our participants to just kind of sit and don't do anything at all. We also [ask] them to do a brief mindfulness practice. But afterwards, we [ask] ‘What were you thinking about?’” Smoski said. “But we're also interested in using [an electroencephalogram] as another way of measuring very brief microstates in the brain.”

Based on the findings of this study, Smoski and Diehl also anticipate using their research to improve existing mental health resources on campus such as Koru Mindfulness, an evidence-based training program designed to meet the needs of college-aged students, and to develop new resources. 

“I think we could have more of an impact on wellness on campus [by having] longer-term support for mindful practice,” Smoski said. 

Cultural effect on self-transcendent emotions

In December, senior Cai Liu received the 2023-24 Jerome S. Bruner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research. Her research analyzes cultural influences on the way people experience love and gratitude. 

“I was just really fascinated by cross-cultural differences because of my personal background,” Liu said. “Emotions are super important to our well-being and also social relationships, I just wanted to see [whether] those important emotions [are] going to vary as well across cultures.”

Liu initially hypothesized that cultures emphasizing social interdependency, such as Latin American and East Asian cultures, would have similar perceptions of what love and gratitude meant. She asked 300 participants including European Americans, Latin Americans and East Asians to provide specific situations where they experienced love or gratitude.

The results, however, were unexpected. 

“The Chinese [group] paid more attention to instrumental aspects of these experiences. For instance, they will mention more tangible actions such as [a] partner cooking a meal,” Liu said. “[The Chilien group] was more on the emotional and expressive side. They mentioned more cases such as emotional support during stressful times or physical intimacy.”

Liu believes that the new and growing field of cultural psychology is extremely important to achieve goals in diversity and inclusion in mental health. 

“If the study is based only on a segment of the population, then how are we going to say, ‘Hey, take this technique, it will work for you, it will work for everyone,’” Liu said. “If we want to make psychology work applicable to people from all cultural backgrounds, then we have to include more diverse samples in our studies.”