Our research aims to answer the following questions:

The temporal dynamics of emotions: How do emotions change over time?

Emotions are temporally dynamic. Previous research has primarily focused on studying the mean levels of emotions over a period of time. Yet, how emotions change from moment to moment, and how age plays a role remains unclear. Our previous work has examined changes in emotional responses over time during sustained negative stimuli (e.g., repeated white noise or honking; Chen et al, Frontiers in Psychology 2014; Proc Int Driv Symp Hum Factors Driv Assess Train Veh Des 2013). We have found that damage to the medial prefrontal cortex and age-related declines in cognitive flexibility led to a slower reduction of emotional response over time (Chen et al., JoCN 2016, SCAN 2015). These findings help explain why older adults and clinical populations with prefrontal dysfunction tend to experience more sustained emotion. Because most emotions happen during social interactions, our current work examines how emotions resonate between dyads and group members (e.g., college roommates, multi-generational families) over time.

The complexity of emotions: Why do we experience complex emotions?

Emotions can be complex—we sometimes co-experience multiple emotions simultaneously. Yet, the mechanism for emotion complexity and how it changes in older age remain unclear. Our previous work has investigated emotion complexity, focusing on emotions that are atypical or incongruent with a given situation (e.g., feeling sadness or pride when seeing a disgusting film clip). By studying older adults and people living with dementia (Chen et al., Current opinion in Behavioral Sciences 2017), we have found that greater emotional complexity was associated with more significant impairment in semantic labeling and more structural declines in brain regions important for interpreting affective values of body signals (Chen et al., Cerebral Cortex 2020). These findings suggested inaccurate labeling/interpretation of affective information of bodily changes may be a source of greater emotion complexity during the older age. Because emotions are functionally critical for interpersonal communication, our current work examines how emotion complexity promotes or undermines couples’ social relationships and collective health.

Emotional connections: How do we emotionally connect to others? And so what?

Emotions are social—they are often shared or resonated between social interactants and connect “individuals” to become dyads or groups. Research has primarily focused on studying emotions within a person. Yet, how emotions connect people and promote close interpersonal relationships remained unclear. Our previous work (Chen et al., JPSP 2021) has found couples are more physiologically connected to each other (e.g., showing synchronized heart rates) when they shared positive emotions. Importantly, couples who were more physiologically connected to each other were more satisfied with their relationships, both concurrently and 5 years later. These findings provide an explanation for how positive emotions connect individuals and promote relationship formation. Because social connections in the real world may manifest in different ways and be modulated by different social contexts and environmental factors, our current work develops novel technology (wearable, in-home sensor, GPS tracker; Chen et al., Psychophysiology 2022) to quantify spatial proximity, interpersonal synchrony, and indoor/outdoor social activities in couples living in urban and rural regions of the states.  We also examine couples' brain-to-brain synchrony using EEG/MEG during shared pleasant and unpleasant events such as listening to shared favorable music or having a conflict conversation. 

Emotions and health: How do emotions “socially” affect health and well-being?

Emotions can be socially adaptive—appropriate emotions help us resolve issues and conflicts, seek help and support, and maintain positive relationships with our loved ones. Thus, changes in emotional functioning can influence not only individuals themselves but also their friends, co-workers, and families. Our previous work has examined persons living with dementia and their family caregivers and found that the caregivers had worse health when the care recipients were more emotionally impaired (Chen et al., Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders 2017). Supported by an NIA K99/R00 award, our current work tests the hypothesis that changes in emotional connections between care recipients and caregivers mechanistically account for (mediate) the association between care recipients’ disruptive emotions and caregivers’ health declines (Chen et al., Clinical Psychological Science, in press). We also examine other risks (limited access to healthcare resources) and protective factors (social support, joint musical activities) that contribute to health changes in aging individuals and couples.

Emotions and technology: How can technology help to promote positive emotions and social connections?

Emotions happen in the real world— Advances in modern technologies, including telecommunications, wearables, mobile devices, and embedded sensors, therefore provide us with exciting opportunities for naturalistic, long-term, objective, and timely community-based assessment and intervention of emotion and social behavior changes. Our previous work (in collaboration with tech companies CareDaily and Tracmo) has developed wearable and smart-home technologies to remotely and longitudinally (continuously for 6+ months) monitor and intervene in emotional symptoms (e.g., anxiety) and social disconnections in persons with dementia and their family caregivers (Levenson, Chen, et al., Clinical Gerontologist 2023; Chen et al., GSA 2022, AAIC 2023). Our current work develops an integrated solution (by combining wearables, smartphones, Alexa/Google Home, cars) to detect and intervene in loneliness and social isolation in persons with dementia and their families.