Penn’s Positive Psychology Center Awards $2.9 Million for Research

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Media Contact:Jordan Reese | jreese@upenn.edu | 215-573-6604 August 4, 2010

PHILADELPHIA –- The Positive Psychology Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the John Templeton Foundation have announced the recipients of the 2010 Templeton Positive Neuroscience Awards, $2.9 million given to 15 new research projects at the intersection of neuroscience and positive psychology.

The winning projects explore a range of topics including how the brain enables humans to flourish, the biological bases of altruism and the effects of positive interventions on the brain.

“Research has shown that positive emotions and interventions can bolster health, achievement and resilience and can buffer against depression and anxiety,” said Martin E. P. Seligman, director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center.  “And while considerable research in neuroscience has focused on disease, dysfunction and the harmful effects of stress and trauma, very little is known about the neural mechanisms of human flourishing.  Creating this network of positive neuroscience researchers will change that.”

The 15 winning proposals represent 24 researchers and were selected from 190 submissions.  The Awards identify the winning researchers as future leaders in the new field of positive neuroscience.

The Positive Neuroscience Project was established in 2008 by Seligman with a $5.8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.  Seligman founded the quickly growing field of Positive Psychology in 1998 based on the idea that what is good in life is as worthy of scientific study as what is disabling in life.

Winners were selected by the Positive Neuroscience Steering Committee, comprised of psychologists, neuroscientists and fellow researchers from Stony Brook University, Harvard University, the University of Colorado, the John Templeton Foundation, Emory University, Ohio State University and Penn.

Winning studies include:
• Abigail Marsh, assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University, will receive $180,000 to study neural functioning of heroically altruistic people, such as those who donate a kidney to save the life of a stranger.  Marsh has shown that sensitivity to others’ fearful facial expressions predicts altruism better than gender, mood, self-reported empathy or general sensitivity.
• James K. Rilling, associate professor of anthropology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory, and Richmond R. Thompson, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Bowdoin College, will receive $200,000 to study why some fathers are better parents than others.  Children with nurturing and playful fathers are more likely to be popular with peers and teachers, be fair and generous and have higher IQs than kids with absent fathers.
• Kateri McRae and Iris Mauss, assistant professors of psychology at the University of Denver, will receive $180,000 to study the neural bases of resilience. Extreme stress cripples some people, while others bounce back and some even thrive due to post traumatic growth.  Research shows that positive emotions and flexible thinking are hallmarks of resilience and can be developed through training and therapy.
• Elena Antonova from King’s College London has received $180,000 to study how meditation affects sensory processing in the brain.  Human brains filter the barrage of information flowing into our bodies through our senses.  We wouldn’t be able to notice anything if we noticed everything, so our brains help us quickly habituate to repeated signals, filtering most information under the radar of attention.  Experienced meditators do not habituate to stimuli like most of us, nor do people with schizophrenia.
• Alon Chen and Elad Schneidman from Weizmann Institute of Science will receive $200,000 to study the warm glow of companionship at the molecular level.  Positive social interactions make us happier and healthier and even buffer us against ailments including heart disease and depression.
• Britta Hölzel and Mohammed Milad from Harvard Medical School will use $200,000 to find out if meditation helps people conquer their fears. Mindfulness meditation impacts the structure and function of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala, brain regions that are also part of the neural circuits critical for deactivating conditioned fears.
• Psyche Loui from Harvard Medical School was awarded $180,000 to study how the brain enables artistic genius.  Loui will study neural connectivity in musicians with absolute pitch and people with synesthesia to better understand supernormal perception.
• Jason Mitchell and Jamil Zaki from Harvard will study the relationship between doing good and feeling good and how both can be amplified within and between people.   Sharing happiness may double your pleasure.
• India Morrison from the University of Gothenburg will study how pleasurable touch affects the way we understand and relate to others.  Touch is more than skin deep because skin is a social and emotional organ.  Touch carries affective meaning, enhances social bonding and shapes our beliefs about what it feels like to be in another person’s skin.  Morrison will focus on a recently discovered type of nerve fiber that transmits the pleasure of gentle touch, and she will examine a people with a rare genetic mutation resulting in a severe reduction of those nerve fibers.
• Stephanie D. Preston from the University of Michigan and Tony W. Buchanan from St. Louis University will study the neural differences between sensing that someone is in pain or danger and taking action to help them. Empathy is bodily response.  Research shows that, when people feel another’s pain psychologically, they also resonate physically in heart rate, facial muscles, skin response, neural activity and pupil dilation.  Even so, people frequently fail to help those in need and sometimes even cause their distress.
• Laurie Santos from Yale University will investigate how altruism evolved in the brain.  Positive Psychology research has shown that good deeds lead to great pleasure.  Altruistic actions can increase happiness even more than beneficial but selfish actions.  Santos will work with two primate species, rhesus macaques and capuchin monkeys, to find out if they also experience prosocial actions as inherently rewarding.
• William Cunningham from Ohio State University and Alexander Todorov from Princeton University will study how people’s social goals influence how their brain processes important social stimuli.
• Tor Wager and Sona Dimidjian from the University of Colorado will study how compassionate thinking impacts brain function and leads to more caring behavior.  The researchers will conduct a four-week compassion meditation training and identify neural processes that support positive thoughts and affiliation with others. 
• Thalia Wheatley from Dartmouth College will study how different brain regions process emotion and support social intelligence.  People see emotion in movement and hear emotion in music.  She will study how different neural regions work together to process complex but universally understood emotion and how that relates to empathy and social skill.
• Adam Anderson from the University of Toronto will study the neural and genetic bases of positivity and resilience.  Anderson will examine how specific genes influence dopamine-related brain functions and behaviors and how that supports positive emotion, creative problem solving and recovery.

Additional information about the Positive Neuroscience Project and Templeton Positive Neuroscience Awards is at www.posneuroscience.org.

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