Congrats Drs. Kahn and Livingston!

We are beyond thrilled to congratulate our latest lab alumni: Dr. Lauren E. Kahn and Dr. Jordan L. Livingston! We are so proud of everything you’ve done and where you’re going with your scholarship! Congratulations, Lauren and Jordan!

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Berkman Wins Early Career Award

Lab Director Dr. Berkman has won a 2018 Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions from the Association of Psychological Science! The announcement states that the Award “celebrates the many new and cutting edge ideas coming out of the most creative and promising investigators who embody the future of psychological science.” In his interview, Dr. Berkman writes about what winning the award means to him:

On a personal level, winning this award is compelling evidence that Imposter Syndrome exists at every career stage. It is humbling to be among the deeply impressive group of past and current winners. I do not feel I belong on the list! Professionally, I am glad that the type of work I do at the interface of social neuroscience and health and clinical psychology is appreciated by the wider field. I hope to use the award as an opportunity to draw attention to the innovative and impactful science that is happening in translational neuroscience. We think of the Center for Translational Neuroscience as only the most recent incarnation of a long tradition of creative integration between neuroscience and psychology at the UO led by people such as Jerry Patterson, Mike Posner, Steve Keele, Mary Rothbart, Helen Neville, and Don Tucker.

Congratulations, Dr. Berkman!


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We Are Hiring a Research Assistant!

The Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab is hiring a full time RA to work on our healthy eating intervention. The perfect person would be a bright, motivated, and conscientious postbac with an interest in translational neuroscience. We’ll begin reviewing applications at the end of May.

About the position

The Research Assistant is responsible for managing day-to-day scheduling, coordination, tracking, recruitment, and retention of subjects. The Research Assistant runs assessment sessions including neuroimaging, conducts telephone interviews, and works closely with the project coordinator and Principal Investigator to achieve project goals. Supervision and training of undergraduate staff and ongoing interaction with the internal review board for human subjects’ protection is also expected.

Full position description here:

About the project

This project, “Devaluing energy-dense foods for cancer control,” adopts a translational neuroscience approach to compare the mechanisms of action of two programs to change eating behavior. Excessive eating of energy-dense and obesity are risk factors for a range of cancers. There are programs to reduce intake of these foods and weight loss, but the effects of the programs rarely last. This project tests whether altering the value of cancer-risk foods can create lasting change and uses neuroimaging to compare the efficacy of two programs to engage the valuation system on a neural level. Results will establish the pathways through which the programs work and suggest specific treatments for individuals based on a personalized profile.

About the lab

Research in the SAN Lab investigates how motivational and cognitive factors contribute to goal pursuit using methods from social psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Our research program is guided by the belief that studying the intersection of basic neural processes, cognition, affective and motivational systems, and long-term behavioral outcomes is the best way to understand self-regulation and to develop novel interventions to help people be successful in their goal pursuit.

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How Does Meditation Pain Relief Work?

Below is a guest post by Lisa May describing her latest paper, “Enhancement of Meditation Analgesia by Opioid Antagonist in Experienced Meditators”, which is now out in Psychosomatic Medicine.


People who practice meditation for a long time get pain relief from meditation, but scientists don’t yet understand how the brain creates this pain relief. I ran a study to test whether meditation reduces pain by using the brain’s natural morphine, endogenous opioids. I thought that endogenous opioids might cause meditation pain relief because other forms of psychological pain relief, such as placebo effects, rely on endogenous opioids. I tested this idea by examining the effects of meditation on pain while endogenous opioids were turned on and again while they were turned off. If the pain relief people get when they meditate goes away when endogenous opioids are off, then I could infer that opioids cause meditation pain relief. That is what I thought would happen.

To test this idea, I worked with 32 healthy adults who had a long-standing meditation practice. These meditators were kind enough to let me deliver short bursts of pain to their hands, and then they reported their pain levels. We repeated the pain before and during meditation. Most of the people in my study (85%) felt less pain while they were meditating than when they were not.

This same group of meditators then did two more days of testing comparing their pain before and during meditation, but with a twist. On one day, I gave them a drug called Naloxone that blocks the brain’s ability to use opioids, meaning that the meditators couldn’t feel the effects of their natural morphine for a couple hours. On the other day, I gave them saline as a control because saline has no effect on how the brain processes pain. They didn’t know which day they got which drug, and I didn’t either.

Because Naloxone turns off the effects of endogenous opioids, I figured it would to one of two things. Naloxone could turn off pain relief during meditation, indicating that opioids cause meditation pain relief. Or, Naloxone could have no effect on people’s pain, indicating that meditation pain relief is caused by some other neurotransmitter. This drug has been used in a lot of pain research studies, and one of those two things always happens – either pain relief goes away, or there is no change in pain.

However, I found something totally new and surprising. Naloxone made the pain relief during meditation stronger! The actual results are shown in the figure below. This is the first time that a high dose of Naloxone has made pain relief stronger in a research study. What does this finding mean? First, it shows that meditation pain relief does not rely on endogenous opioids. The results also suggest that studying meditation could teach us important things about how the brain processes pain. Finally, we need to do more research to fully understand why turning off endogenous opioids made pain relief stronger. This study might teach us more about how to relieve pain without opioids.

Meditation pain relief enhanced by opioid blockade

Full citation info:

May, L. M., Kosek, P., Zeidan, F., & Berkman, E. T. (in press). Enhancement of meditation analgesia by opioid antagonist in experienced meditators. Psychosomatic Medicine. [pdf] [osf]

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Cullen Wins NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

SAN Lab Graduate Student Brendan Cullen received a 2018 Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) from the National Science Foundation. The prestigious GRF award will fully support Brendan’s doctoral studies for 3 of the next 5 years. Congratulations, Brendan!

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Tips for Coaches and Consultants to Help Clients with Goals and Behavior Change

Our new piece in Consulting Psychology Journal approaches goals and behavior change from a coaching perspective. How can coaches and consultants help their clients set better goals and effectively change their behavior?

Dr. Berkman wrote a plain language summary on the Motivated Brain here.

Citation info:

Berkman, E.T. (2018). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change: Lessons learned for consulting psychology. Consulting Psychology Journal, 70, 28-44. [pdf]

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New Article on Teen Risk Taking

Several folks from our group led by doctoral candidate Jessica Flannery have a new piece on teen risk taking over at The Conversation, “Teens aren’t just risk machines – there’s a method to their madness”.

You know the conventional wisdom: Adolescents are impulsive by nature, like bombs ready to go off at the most minor trigger. Parents feel they must cross their fingers and hope no one lights the fuse that will lead to an explosion. Adults often try restricting and monitoring teens’ behavior, in an effort to protect these seemingly unthinking riskseekers. That’s the tale told in the media, anyway.

Neuroscience evidence has seemed to bolster the case that adolescents are just wired to make bad decisions. Studies suggest that brain regions associated with self-control and long-term planning, such as the prefrontal cortex, are still developing. At the same time, adolescence is a time of increased activity in a brain region associated with reward, the ventral striatum. The story goes that these out-of-control teens are both extra sensitive to rewards and unable to rein in impulses – and thus naturally risky. They just can’t control themselves because their brains are unevenly developed.

As psychologists who focus on adolescents and their developing brains, we believe that teens have gotten an unfair rap. There are important developmental reasons adolescents act the way they do. They’re driven to explore their environments and learn everything they can about their surroundings. A teenager’s job, developmentally speaking, is to try out new behaviors and roles. Doing that sometimes involves risk – but not necessarily risk for its own sake.

Read the full piece here.

UPDATE (March 21, 2018): You can listen to Jessica discuss the piece on the Matt Townsend show here.

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Bill Walton Visits SAN Lab

Former UCLA Bruin and Portland Blazer basketball star Bill Walton stopped by the lab for a quick scan of his brain for a segment on his ESPN show, Walton’s World. See below for some pics!

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Quack Chat on New Year’s Resolutions by Dr. Berkman

Come hear Professor Berkman talk about evidence-based tips to help keep your New Year’s resolutions. He’ll present a #QuackChat at the Ax Billy Grill in the Downtown Athletic Club on Wednesday, December 13th, at 6pm.

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Read Dr. Berkman’s New Take on Healthy Choice

Healthy choices are neither good or bad; only thinking makes them so

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Healthy choices are more complicated than a devil-angel contest suggests.

Elliot Berkman, University of Oregon

Doing healthy things can feel like a battle between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. The devil impels me to order the bacon burger for lunch, but the angel nudges my hand toward the salad.

This dichotomy goes way back in Western thought. Plato likened the process of making such choices to the charioteer of the soul commanding two horses, one “noble” and the other wicked. This allegory echoes throughout history in various forms. Other ready examples include reason versus passion as described by the Greeks, the Judeo-Christian battle between sin and redemption, and Freud’s account of the psyche’s superego and id. Our intuitions about healthy behaviors are deeply shaped by this history. Plus, hard choices simply feel like we are being pulled in two directions.

Getting to the root causes of healthy behaviors is important to science because they are a big part of individual and public health. The leading causes of death in the United States – cancer, heart disease and respiratory illness, among others – are all caused at least in part by our behavior. As a society, we could reduce the onset of these afflictions by learning new ways to change our behavior.

Despite the intuition, health behaviors are not the result of a battle between two opposing forces. So what are they? My colleagues and I recently suggested that they are the same as any other choice. Instead of a battle between two forces, self-control of unhealthy impulses is more like a many-sided negotiation. Various features of each option in a choice get combined, then the total values of the options are compared. This is kind of a fancy version of a “compare the pros and cons” model.

Problems with the battle analogy

These days, psychologists refer to the dichotomy in Western thought as “dual-process” models of health behavior. Such models come in many varieties, but they share two notable features. First, they describe behavior as a winner-take-all battle between two opposing forces. There is no compromise. Whichever force is stronger dictates behavior.

Second, beyond being in opposition to one another, the forces are also inflected with a moral tone, with one being good and the other wicked. The devil impels you to do bad things, the angel advises toward virtuous ones. Psychologists call the warring parties impulse and control, or hot and cold processes.

Casting behavior in the stark terms of pros versus cons is intuitive but might not be accurate. After all, our minds contain many more than just two systems for making decisions. As Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.”

Plus, people have many ways to choose healthy options that don’t involve a battle. Avoiding a temptation in the first place is effective. If I know that I have trouble not ordering the bacon burger, then I can choose to go to a restaurant that doesn’t have one on the menu.

Also effective is fighting fire with fire by getting excited about a healthy option. And being healthy doesn’t need to be moralized. Indulgence can be a good thing, such as when it serves as a reward. Some people even plan indulgence in advance to give themselves a break. In studying healthy choices, scientists have learned that they are more complex than we previously thought.

Advantages of thinking of many choices

The cheeseburger is not bad. Only thinking makes it so.
Michaylovskiy/, CC BY-SA

Let’s revisit the burger-vs.-salad example. Sure, the burger tastes good (a “hot” feature) and you know that the salad is healthy (a “cold” feature). But many other features could be relevant, too. Not all of them will fall clearly into the hot-cold dichotomy. The salad will seem more attractive if you want to impress the friends you’re with if you think they value health. Or maybe I think of myself as a “bacon person,” so I know ordering the burger with that topping will affirm that part of my self-concept.

The key point here is that people can have many reasons for making the healthy or unhealthy choice. A good psychological theory will be able to account for that diversity of motives.

Beyond being more realistic than hot-cold models, there are several ways that thinking of health as a choice can help us better understand it. Researchers working across a variety of disciplines have uncovered what they call “anomalies” in choice. These anomalies are quirks where choice differs – predictably – from what would be optimal. If health is a choice, then these anomalies apply to health, too.

One of my favorites is the decoy effect. There are cases where having a third option in a choice, even one that someone would never choose, can change behavior. Suppose I always prefer a burger to a moderately healthy salad. A restaurant owner could add a decoy choice to the menu, such as an Extremely Healthy SuperFood Salad, that would nudge me to choose the moderately healthy salad over the burger when I considered all three options. This behavior is anomalous – why would an option that I never choose influence my choice between two others? – but it is also useful in helping change health behaviors.

Another anomaly that can be useful for changing health behaviors is realizing that the value of something good is not constant. This is called the law of diminishing marginal utility. The value of something good depends on how much of that thing you’ve already consumed.

This is intuitive, but technically irrational. If I like M&M’s, eating the first one (going from 0 to 1 M&M’s) should feel just as good as eating my 104th one (going from 103 to 104 M&M’s). But we all know that is not the case. The deliciousness of things like M&M’s wears off as you keep eating them – their utility diminishes. In a clever series of studies, researchers found that merely imagining eating tasty treats before being served them reduced the amount people ate. Imagined eating, it seems, caused their utility to diminish.

Casting health behaviors as choice also helps clarify their neural underpinnings. The brain systems involved in simple choice are increasingly well-understood. The science has even progressed to the point that researchers can use computers to predict what people will choose and precisely how long it will take them in specific conditions. This improved understanding will eventually lead to more effective interventions for behavior change.

But wait – if healthy is just like any other choice, why does it feel like being pulled in two directions? We tend to moralize health behaviors in our society. Part of that feeling is probably related to the anticipated guilt of choosing the “bad” option.

An angel expels Adam and Eve from Paradise for making a bad choice in this Benjamin West painting.
Everett – Art/

And, morality aside, choice models show that people will feel torn when their preferences vacillate between options.

Just because there are two competing options doesn’t imply there are two competing systems. Feelings of conflict and indecision can arise even in a simple choice system such as the one described here.

The ConversationRemember that your health is not helpless amidst a battle between temptation and grace. It’s your choice, and science offers solutions to making a better one.

Elliot Berkman, Associate Professor, Psychology, University of Oregon

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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