The point where to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and, that being determined, a calm unperturbedness may be attained; to that calmness there will succeed a tranquil repose; in that repose there may be careful deliberation, and that deliberation will be followed by the attainment of the desired end.
Zengzi (505-436 BC), The Great Learning
知止而後有定， 定而後能靜， 靜而後能安， 安而後能慮， 慮而後能得。
How does a determined state of goal pursuit confer a calm unperturbedness? How does a tranquil repose enable careful deliberation? The question contemplated in the very early days of Eastern wisdom still sounds refreshingly relevant today: How does emotion interact with cognition to help individuals achieve their best levels of functioning, the desired end?
It was with this question in mind that I pursued graduate studies in cognitive neuroscience, hoping to ground intuitions about psychological well-being or vulnerability to psychopathology in firm neurophysiological mechanisms, while finding a bridge between the Eastern ideals that I was born into and the Western way of thinking that I was trained in. Throughout my graduate career, I pursued this central question along two paths:
what are the psychological, behavioral, and neural correlates of affective dysregulation, and how do these factors at different levels interact in their contribution to vulnerability to disorders such as anxiety and depression?
how can we bring the findings about these factors and their interactive mechanisms from basic research to effectuate real-world changes in promoting well-being, building resilience, and preventing deterioration of mental health?
In my early work, I focused intensely on the amygdala, the putative “emotion center” of the brain, upon identifying a discrepancy between psychiatric research and research with subclinical individuals in the reported association between amygdala volume and anxiety symptoms. I argued that such discrepancy could be due to a lack of precision in the methods routinely used to obtain volumetric measurements in non-psychiatric research. To test this, I, along with my colleagues, after arduous effort spanning five years, developed a comprehensive protocol to manually delineate amygdala on MR images (Moore, Hu, et al., 2014). With now assured volumetric measurements, we showed that indeed, consistent with psychiatric studies, smaller amygdala volume indexed vulnerability to anxiety in our sample of healthy young adults (Hu, et al., 2018).
To complement my research on amygdala as a region involved in basic emotion processing, in a second line of work, I investigated how volumetric variation of cortical regions such as orbitofrontal cortex (OFC; Dolcos, Hu, et al., 2016) and inferior frontal cortex (IFC; Hu, et al., 2017) might be linked to individual differences in vulnerability to anxiety symptoms. In these studies, I showed that the OFC volume positively predicted less manifestation of anxiety symptoms, mediated by increased trait optimism, whereas that the IFC volume negatively predicted anxiety symptoms which in turn predicted attenuated negative bias in attention, consistent with what we know from functional neuroimaging literature of the role of OFC in positive valuation and the role of IFC in cognitive control. These findings, together with the identified link between amygdala and anxiety, pointed to an intriguing direction, a direction from static characterization to dynamic change: Can systematic training targeting these regions involved in emotion processing and cognitive control lead to neuroplasticity indicative of improvement in psychological well-being?
In 2016, I collaborated with a clinical team at University of Illinois to develop an evidence-based intervention aimed to help with the stressful readjustment of veterans, some of whom lived with invisible wounds while some others faced a myriad of challenges as they reintegrated into the civilian environment. Building upon previous neuroimaging research on emotion regulation strategies, we developed a novel intervention utilizing techniques such as focused attention and cognitive reappraisal, and cultivated affective resilience by guided application of these techniques in repeated exercises involving coping with emotional conflicts from both external (visual stimuli) and internal sources (autobiographical memories). In three years, we successfully trained three cohorts of veterans to achieve enhanced psychological well-being as well as improved executive control, indicative of transfer effects. More importantly, preliminary analysis of resting state functional connectivity showed promising evidence of functional neuroplasticity implicating emotion processing and cognitive control regions (Dolcos, Hu, et al., 2021). This is our first foray into translating findings from laboratory-based research into clinically relevant applications that may aid the prevention and treatment of emotional disorders.
In addition to emotion regulation training, I am also currently working on two intervention studies that capitalized on the plasticity of the mechanisms involved in emotion-cognition interactions to improve psychological well-being. In the first study, in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team at University of Alberta, a two-armed clinical trial was conducted in adolescents facing significant mental health challenges, comparing a mindfulness program with treatment as usual. While analysis on the neuroimaging data is underway, early qualitative data have yielded evidence of significant gains in skills for coping with internalizing problems and for adaptive emotion regulation (Vohra et al., 2019). Being part of this study brings my intellectual quest full circle to the beginning of my scholarly curiosity: the mindful state —— being intently in the present, anchored by purposeful attention, while remaining untethered from any particular judgment —— and its restorative effects on well-being may afford key insights to the perennial pondering on the delicate balance between the "calm unperturbedness" and the "careful deliberation" that begets contentment.
In the second intervention study, I worked closely with research teams from the Department of Landscape Architecture at University of Illinois and from the National Taiwan University to investigate the effect of immersive experiences in green infrastructure on attentional control as well as on the intrinsic functional architecture of the brain, as measured by resting state functional connectivity. Motivated by real-world observations of instances of languishing when detached from natural environments, we ask, do daily walks in the verdant, leafy parks, compared to the steely gray urban jungle, produce pervasive changes in how our brain functions at rest that refreshens the mind and helps alleviate cognitive fatigue? We hope that results from this study could contribute to the cumulative knowledge base about how the environment humans inhabit profoundly influences our health, both physically and psychologically.