Mammals often communicate about perceived changes in their external environment: detection of a predator, a prey, or another conspecific and the signal their emotional response: fear, anticipation, anger, social anticipation. Essential for individual wellbeing and survival in humans and other mammals, these abilities involve emotions, expressing them, detecting them in others, and interpreting them correctly. My laboratory studies how social behaviors expressed in response to environmental changes communicate emotions and social understanding. We have employed cue-conditioned fear paradigms to identify empathy in juvenile mice and conditioned place preference testing to discover that young mice and ground squirrels derive pleasure from living with their adolescent peers.
Our experiments are stepping outside the lab and into natural environments. Animals raised inside laboratory cages are deprived of social refuge, freedom to explore novel objects and environments, and opportunities to make decisions that come with rewarding and aversive consequences. In nature, their wild and feral conspecifics experience the spatial and temporal complexity relevant to healthy brain development and human experience. We study wildlife, often ground squirrels because, like humans, they sense their environment predominantly through visual and auditory cues. We discovered that captive ‘asocial’ juvenile ground squirrels derive pleasure from access to social living. Through lab and field studies, we identified a putative ‘camaraderie effect,’ a proximal mechanism for altruism whereby helping others increases psychological access to social rewards that in turn, promotes physiological health.
We also study how children respond to social situations portrayed through stories. We use animated stories to learn where children pay attention while observing a dynamic social situation. We ask how they respond emotionally to the trials and accomplishments of a story character, how they imitate, and how they comprehend stories. We are particularly interested in how these social abilities develop with maturation. We ask how variations in behavioral and physiological responses to social situations, when measured objectively and at fine-scale, can be used to characterize individual differences in social temperament.
Of current interest are the inadvertent effects of laboratory housing on animal neurodevelopment and how we can ascertain the effects of environmental confinement on cognition, affective experience, and animal subject wellbeing.Read more
Areas of interest
- Social motivation
- Vocal communication
- Ground squirrels