Skip to Content

Rising Star Dr. Reiko Graham

Dr. Reiko Graham
Read more about
Dr. Reiko Graham

Dr. Reiko Graham:
What happens when we experience emotion?

Dr. Reiko Graham and her students are breaking new ground in learning how the brain processes information.

Their research is helping to answer questions about what happens to our brains and bodies when we experience emotion, what changes occur when we try to control our emotions, and how we interpret emotions in other people.

Using state-of-the-art laboratory equipment in Texas State’s Department of Psychology, Graham and her students are conducting studies in attempts to answer the following questions.

How do we process facial information?

Humans are exceptionally good at reading other people’s nonverbal cues and understanding what’s going on, Graham said. For instance, by processing information from facial expressions and the direction that their eyes gaze, we get a sense of how people are getting along when we walk into a room.

“We quickly integrate this kind of information in our brains, and I’m interested in knowing when and where in the brain that happens,” Graham said.

A number of processes occur when we observe someone being emotional: we shift our attention to that person, we observe an expression and the object of that emotion (via the direction of a gaze), we interpret it, and then we have emotional and behavioral responses to it. Graham has collected data showing that, rather than all of these processes occurring in different parts of the brain and coming together later, they appear to be coming together early in the perceptual process, perhaps in the brain’s occipital or temporal cortices.

“Our data suggest that information about eye gaze and facial expression is actually coming together quickly and early in the visual system,” she said.

What is the relationship between personality type and how we read faces?

Graham and her students are studying whether highly empathic people are more sensitive to other people’s facial information.

“People have a tendency to look where other people are looking,” Graham said. “For example, if I look over there, the odds are that you’ll look over there, too. It’s an automatic thing that we can’t control very well. Even if I tell you that I’m going to look over there every once in a while and nothing’s going to happen, you’re still likely to shift your gaze when I shift mine.

“Our studies have shown that, if you are a person who is high in empathic concern—someone who gets upset, for example, when you see other people in distress—you will shift your attention to where they are looking more quickly. But this effect takes time to emerge, so it's likely to be related to higher-level processing rather than a knee-jerk response. So, we will follow up with studies on where this kind of empathic response is occurring in the brain,” she said.

Editor’s note:
Dr. Graham is also conducting a number of studies on addiction with Dr. Natalie Ceballos (see “Rising Star Dr. Natalie Ceballos: Discovering new information about addiction”).