University of Pennsylvania
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The Neurogenetics of Positivity and Resilience

Principal Investigators:

Adam K. Anderson, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Canada Research Chair in Affective Neuroscience, Department of Psychology, University of Toronto
Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D., Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Principal Investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina

Our prior work has shown that one of the critical features of positive emotion (PE) is the capacity for increased attentional flexibility and cognitive breadth. We propose that positivity is not the pursuit of pleasure or even well-being, but rather involves the states and traits that promote broad thought and flexible action. In the proposed project we will examine conjointly the neural, psychological, and bodily correlates of positive emotions, hypothesizing that evolutionarily older neural systems supporting exploratory behavior represent a crucial component of the human potential for positivity. In doing so, we will also examine the potential genetic origins of individual differences in the capacity for positivity by assessing how different polymorphisms related to the neurotransmitter dopamine limit or enhance the expression of positivity's neurocognitive markers.

Although prior psychological theories have posited dopaminergic mediation of the cognitive sequelae of PE, the dopaminergic system is not monolithic. Multiple pathways and numerous receptor types, as well as the genetic variants that influence their activity, support equally diverse functions. As such, dopamine transmission cannot be equated with pleasure, much less with wellbeing. Borrowing terminology from nonhuman animal research and computer science, our thesis is that positivity is associated with activation of dopaminergic "play"/"exploration" as opposed to "seeking"/"exploitation" systems. We propose that the neuroanatomic and genetic profile of positivity is associated with the former. In particular, it is associated with mesolimbic dopaminergic modulation of activity in the medial and rostral prefrontal cortices, and the genetic polymorphisms that influence such dopaminergic activity, that support exploration of new strategies and behaviors, as opposed to the exploitation of fixed habitual routines that maximize reward. In this project, we also propose to extend our examinations of positivity to include neural, psychological, and peripheral physiologic markers of resilience. We propose increased attentional flexibility and cognitive breadth, which our previous research has shown to be associated with positive emotion, are the fundamental underlying cognitive mechanisms that serve well in adapting to the slings and arrows of life's ever changing circumstances—a core feature of resilience.


Adam K. Anderson, Ph.D., is the Canada Research Chair in Affective Neuroscience and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto and a Research Associate at the Rotman Research Institute. He is co-director of the Affect & Cognition Lab. His research focuses on the psychological and neural mechanisms of emotional influences on cognition and their dysregulation in affective disorders. In 2009 he was awarded the Ministry of Research and Innovation's Early Researcher Award and the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology in Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience, and the 2010 Cognitive Neuroscience Society, Young Investigator Award.

Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D., is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Principal Investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina. She is a leading scholar within social psychology, affective science, and positive psychology. Her research centers on positive emotions and human flourishing and is supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health. Her research and her teaching have been recognized with numerous honors, including the 2000 American Psychological Association's Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology. Her work is cited widely and she is regularly invited to give keynotes nationally and internationally.

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