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Removing and Manipulating Emotional Information in Working Memory: Cognitive and Neural Representations

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PROJECT SUMMARY The overall objective of the current project is to understand how emotional thoughts can be removed from one's mind. Most psychiatric disorders are characterized by an inability to remove negative, intrusive, and maladaptive thoughts from mind. Previously examining whether an individual has purged a thought from mind has relied mainly on self-report measures (e.g., ?Yes, I stopped thinking about the car crash?). In the proposed research, the research team will use a combination of brain imaging approaches with machine learning techniques drawn from computer science to provide an objective neural marker of whether indeed a thought has been removed from mind. This approach builds on proven success with this technique pioneered by the research team. This prior work focused on the removal of (emotionally neutral) information from mind and demonstrated that suppressing a specific thought and clearing one's mind of all thought rely on different neural mechanisms. Moreover, the prior findings indicated that these mental operations differentially affect one's ability to take in new information after the old information has been removed. The focus of the proposed project will be to examine how emotional information is removed from current thought. The project will ask three main questions. First, it will examine whether the emotional valence of information affects the engagement and effectiveness of neural systems involved in removing information from mind. A series of parallel studies, one involving neuroimaging and the other examining people's behavior, are designed to examine whether these removal operations are affected by a) the emotional valence (positive, negative) of the information to be removed, b) the emotional valence of the information that should now be brought to mind and c) the match (e.g., positive, positive) or mismatch (positive, negative) between the valence of the information being removed and that which replaces it. Expectations are that negative information will be harder to remove and easier to be brought into current thought than positive information. Second, the project will examine whether the effectiveness of these removal operations varies across individuals. It will assess the degree to which individuals report that they have difficulty controlling their thoughts, the degree to which they have symptoms related to depression and anxiety, and their ability to hold and manipulate information in working memory. Expectations are that individuals who report difficulty in controlling their thoughts will have difficulty in removing information from mind, and that people with higher levels of depression will have specific difficulties in removing negative thoughts. Third, the project will examine whether individuals can be trained, using real-time feedback about brain function during neuroimaging, to effectively remove thoughts from mind by providing them with a sense of what it feels like to successfully remove a thought. The results of the proposed project will have important implications both for understanding the recurrent and intrusive thoughts that characterize psychopathology and for providing insights on how they might be reduced.
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