Nature and Cognition
The idea that nature is good for people is not exactly novel. For centuries, indigenous leaders, philosophers, artists and writers have extolled the virtues of nature on the human mind. In recent decades, a body of scientific evidence has emerged suggesting that there are indeed many cognitive benefits to interacting with nature, including a study published by our lab demonstrating that time outside boosts creativity. My colleagues and I have recently begun measuring neurophysiological correlates of “the nature effect” using electroencephalography (EEG). We have recently conducted several studies documenting changes in the brain when participants are in nature. We have found preliminary evidence that spending time in nature may restore depleted attentional resources in the brain! (Though there is much work to be done to qualify this as a specific-to-nature effect). Additionally, we have completed studies examining how stress and physiological measures of stress change in nature (see Scott et al., 2020 & 2021 listed below).
Error processing in the brain
Part of understanding how our brains stay on task is understanding what we do when we get off track–in other words, when we make a mistake! Therefore, I am interested in understanding error-processing in the brain. We can measure how the brain responds to errors in two main ways–through a brainwave called the Error-Related Negativity, which occurs every time you make an error, and by using eye-tracking to track pupil size when you make a mistake. We know that anxious individuals tend to have larger neural responses to errors than non-anxious individuals. However, researcher disagree as to why this is, with some suggesting that anxious individuals have more of an affective aversion to errors, and others suggesting instead that anxious individuals display larger error responses because their anxiety itself takes up cognitive resources, and therefore must devote compensatory effort towards error-processing in order to override the demands of their anxiety. My doctoral work is focused on understanding whether or not the latter hypothesis is true.
I am a passionate about the use of cognitive electroencephalography (EEG) to study human cognition. Recently, I authored a paper where we simultaneously used EEG and pupillometry to examine how our brain aids in responding during an Oddball task (task where participants have to either identify x’s or o’s on the screen as quickly as possible). Previous theory had suggested that one of the task-related brainwaves elicited during this task, the P3b component, was generated in the Locus Coeruleus Norepinephrine (LCNE) system of the brain (an area of the brain that helps to regulate our attention and engagement with tasks, among other things). Our study did not find strong evidence that the P3b is related to phasic LC-NE activity, but rather found that the P3b predicted behavior independently of the LCNE. Exploratory findings did however suggest a relationship between tonic LC-NE activity and the P3b.