Current Projects

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Current Projects

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The neurobiology of affiliative emotions and extended attachment

Humans are considered an ultra-social species. We eager for affiliation since our early life and during development we are attached not only to other individuals (kin and non-kin) but as well as to social groups and abstract concepts (extended attachment). In this project we aim at deciphering the neural representation of the affiliation in humans with fMRI.

PI: Jorge Moll
Lead researcher: Tiago Bortolini, PhD

Non-ordinary experiences and mental health: the role of appraisal processes

Non-ordinary experiences (NOE) such as hearing voices, dissociative experiences, or feelings of deep insight are relatively common in the general population but are sometimes associated with diminished quality of life and mental health. Medical interpretations use psychiatric labels, whereas spiritual interpretations may offer a path to empowerment and social inclusion. How individuals appraise such experiences may have a long-term impact on their lives. A better understanding of the diversity of NOEs and their appraisals, together with the accompanying psychological and physiological states are crucial. Our aims are to a) adapt a novel instrument in Brazil that covers a wide range of experiences and their interpretations without presupposing clinical or spiritual implications, b) study their psychological and physiological profiles, c) understand how selected NOEs are perceived during daily activities and d) in ritualistic group contexts in which such experiences may be collectively appraised.

Co-PIs: Ronald Fischer and Jorge Moll
International collaborators: Ann Taves & Elliott Ihm (University of California at Santa Barbara, USA)

Semi-naturalistic and lab-based study of Physical Mediumship

The history of religious/spiritual traditions is filled with accounts of anomalous physical phenomena ranging from levitation and bilocation to miraculous cures and resurrection (Thurston, 1952; Grosso, 2015). Among these is physical mediumship, the alleged manifestation of spirits of the deceased through physical phenomena such as spirit materialization, “raps” (strange noises heard on furniture and other objects), “apports” (unexpected appearance and disappearance of objects), appearance of lights with no discernible origin, levitation and movement of tables or other furniture, apparently without a mechanical or other established scientific explanation. It is known that reports of paranormal/anomalous phenomena are more widespread in cultures that encourage them (Maraldi & Krippner, 2019). This is certainly the case of Brazil, where accounts of extraordinary experiences abound, comprising a central element of different religions and spiritual practices (Playfair, 2011).

Co-PIs: Everton Maraldi, Ricardo de Oliveira, Jorge Moll

Investigation of Non-Inferential Perception using a 3D-Computer-Assisted Dowsing Task

The ability to locate lost or hidden items by means of non-inferential perception is considered to be a form of human psi ability and is historically known as “dowsing”. This is still a controversial topic, especially because few systematic studies have been conducted so far (Puthoff & May, 1984; May & Lantz, 1986; Utts et. al., 1987). These studies have demonstrated mixed results. The current research project aims to investigate the potential of a computer-assisted 3D-spatial-based dowsing (or “search”) task to identify individuals that manifest this ability based on a large sample of the general population. The task will be available online for desktop and mobile platforms. The software will be based on gamification strategies, which will allow us to identify and encourage top performers to contribute with more sessions. This will allow us to further characterize this ability and to investigate its reproducibility.

PI: Jorge Moll
Lead researcher: Julie H. Weingartner, PhD

Investigation of Non-Inferential Perception and Associated Cognitive Aspects k

The atypical perceptual ability (HPA), also known as “anomalous cognition”, consists of a supposed ability to acquire non-inferential information through perceptual mechanisms other than those typically described in humans, such as hearing, vision, etc. Although it is a scientifically controversial topic, it is important to note that for more than 40 years, several studies have been carried out using a scientifically rigorous protocol to investigate the existence of the phenomenon. Although several of these studies have shown positive results, the topic remains controversial. The present project aims to replicate previous HPA studies, using a standard protocol that was widely used in studies started at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and that continued between 1975-1995. In these studies, participants are asked to describe an image that will be revealed to him at a later time. In addition to replicating the protocol independently of the original group, we intend to improve it, considering previous criticisms, as well as extend the original protocol through the development and use of an online platform.

PI: Jorge Moll
Lead researcher: Julie H. Weingartner, PhD

Chance Hackers – a citizen science initiative for investigating chance-biasing influences from goal-oriented agents on random systems

The possibility of the mind alone influencing distant physical systems has intrigued the humankind since ancient times. With the development of scientific method and the parapsychology research field, different physical systems with unpredictable outcomes have been used for trying to detect such chance-biasing influences. It started with dice tossing, coin flipping, and in the 1970’s it evolved to random number generators (RNG) – i.e., electronic devices that generate unpredictable binary outcomes. In the RNG experiments, the participants (hereby named goal-oriented agents) try to affect the 50% binary outcomes probability, while usually watching a real-time feedback informing their success in a recent time window. The present evidence concerning RNG systems is controversial, while two meta-analysis show a statistically significant small effect, in practice, the phenomena suffers from a reproducibility issue: interesting results appear in exploratory studies, but can’t be reproduced in a confirmatory scenario. The current research project aims to investigate a new method that may provide more robust results and overcome the reproducibility issue. Also, to provide hardware, software and educational tools to establish an international citizen science initiative resulting in a massive database that will provide a more conclusive answer regarding the existence of chance-biasing influences.

PI: Jorge Moll
Lead researcher: Gabriel Guerrer, PhD

Understanding and improving mental health challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted mental health in Brazil and globally due to the high mortality rate and the risk of contamination, the isolation measures widely used to contain the virus and the associated economic and social consequences. The increased demand for mental health services is unlikely to be met by the traditional health system via face-to-face therapeutic interventions, especially as these traditional health resources have been shown to be insufficient to meet the demand even prior to the pandemic. There is an urgent need to develop and extend self-assessment options for concerned individuals over time that use validated, and efficient instruments combined with offering validated psychoeducational initiatives and digital interventions online for the public. This collaborative project between a Brazilian and an English research team aims to create a digital platform to mitigate the psychological effects of the pandemic and offer new options for evidence-based interventions in the mental health domain. We aim to a) provide psychoeducational content introducing interventions and activities that can be used to improve mental health and well-being in a self-guided, safe way and with proven efficacy based on meta-analyses; and b) offer self-assessments of the users’ psychological profiles related to mental health (personality, values, cognitive and emotional processes) to increase self-knowledge, self-awareness, and targeted engagement with the online interventions. This project proposes an innovative model combining psychoeducation, self-assessments and validated interventions that is in line with the recommendations of the UN and The Lancet’s COVID-19 Commission Mental Health Task Force. The results will be relevant for a better understanding of how the global pandemic has effects on the basic psychology of the population and how to offer effective digital interventions to the general population. This work also links up with community driven mental health interventions in the Complexo do Mare, one of the largest urban communities in Rio de Janeiro. This work is supported by funding by the FAPESP foundation and Centre for Disease Control.

Values, personality & emotional processing in context

Individuals need to select, adjust and regulate their behavior on a daily basis, in order to function optimally within their environment. This requires an efficient and rapid regulation of both motivational and emotional processes. Previous research has largely studied motivational and emotional research in isolation, therefore, this broad interdisciplinary line of inquiry aims to reconnect these areas, specifically focusing on the linkages of between values and personality systems on one side and emotional processes and wellbeing dynamics on the other side. A specifical emphasis is given to contextual, including cultural and evolutionary, processes and how they influence the interconnectedness of motivation and emotion. This work draws upon cross-cultural and cultural evolution research on emotion, personality and values, approaches within clinical practice, especially third wave therapies and insights from cognitive neuroscience. We are using event sampling methods, peripheral physiological measures and cross-cultural observational research to advance our understanding of the interconnection of motivation and emotion dynamics in real-world contexts, with a focus on clinical applications.

Psychological assessment currently relies heavily on self- or other-reports. These approaches have been essential for the development of psychological theory, but face significant problems due to the need to directly assess individuals and the dependence on specific theoretical models that have been developed in typically student populations in North America and Europe. In this interdisciplinary line of research combining researchers in computer science, history and linguistics, we are developing and analyzing text-analytical tools that can be used to assess individuals or groups at a distance, using verbal behavior as an input for description and classification. Beyond deriving insights into psychological characteristics over time or place, these tools can also be used to identify salient cognitive structures of individuals and populations over long historical periods to uncover how cognitive processes have changed. For example, our team has already identified the implicit person structures used by 19th century authors such as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens and traced the evolution of person descriptions over a 2000 year period in ancient Mesopotamia. Current effort are focusing on developing tools for Portuguese and creating more time and age sensitive dictionary methods for feature extraction.

Central to social and behavioral sciences is the measurement of human behavior, feeling and thought, which requires reports by individuals about their mental states which need to be measured with high quality and accuracy. Unfortunately, these processes are often left unexamined and outcomes of this measurement process are taken at face-value. Building on cross-cultural research in the equivalence and bias tradition, the invariance framework within psychometrics and informed by complexity science and philosophy of science, we are exploring the philosophical, theoretical and technical implications of behavioral measurement and propose tools for greater quality and precision. One of the central questions for our team at this moment is the theoretical intersection between different representations of the same data across different disciplines (e.g., latent variable models in psychology, network structures in clinical research or biology, formative models in sociology) and how these models deal with measurement uncertainty and imprecision.

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