My main research interest is how humans can derive a social understanding of each other:
How can we feel what someone else if feeling? How can we understand what they are thinking? And how are these processes influenced by who we are and who it is we are trying to understand?
I investigate these processes using neuroimaging, behavioural data and machine learning techniques. In my PhD project, I focus on the influence of motherhood on social understanding of unfamiliar adults and children.
The quality and reproducibility of my research is as important to me as the content. This is why I strive to make my research as transparent and accessible as possible, preregistering my studies, publishing scripts and data where possible and submitting my papers to Open Access journals.
If we want to react to another person's emotion, first we need to recognise the emotion. Humans can display a variety of emotions, from simple to complex and mixed emotions, and they are generally quite good at recognising these emotions in other people's faces.
Surprisingly, my research shows that mothers need more information to correctly recognise the information in an unfamiliar child's face than women who do not have children. This could potentially be due to a stronger focus on the emotional reaction to children's faces.
THEORY OF MIND
Theory of mind is the process that allows us to figure out what is going on in someone else's mind: what are they thinking, believing, feeling? It is an inferential process and its result can be incorrect. For example, I can hear you asking about Theory of Mind and deducing that you don't know about it yet, however, you just wanted to test my knowledge.
In my research, I found increased activation during a theory of mind task in both theory of mind and emotion processing areas in mothers compared to women without chidlren.
Empathy is feeling with another person: we observe or imagine someone else feeling an emotion and share this emotion with them. When people are feeling empathy, they feel the same emotion as the person who is the source of their empathy. Additionally, people are aware that the other person is the reason for their emotion. For example, when I am sad because my friend is sad.
To investigate differences in empathy response between mothers and women without children, I have shown them painful and neutral pictures. Mothers showed a stronger activation of empathy areas (bilateral anterior insula) than women without children.
My research on motherhood has shown that there are differences between mothers and women without children in many if not all processes of social understanding. These differences are not confined to understanding children and seem to generalise to their social understanding of other adults. However, there are still many open questions, for example:
Can we find the same differences when comparing fathers and men without children?
Are these differences due to motherhood or do they precede it?
Can we find the same or similar differences in adoptive parents and / or people who professionally care for children?
METHODS & SKILLS