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John Cacioppo:
Linking the mind and body

image: Research headerA new U of C professor pioneers the field of social neuroscience, showing how biology and social behavior interact.

image: John Cacioppo (photo by Matthew Gilson)
Hardly an armchair psychologist, John Cacioppo tries out his lab from a subject's seat.

From the outside, the chamber looks like an industrial-size freezer or a bank vault. But inside, the 8-foot-by-12-foot space is clearly not intended to store meat or money. A La-Z-Boy recliner faces a wall alternately flashing giant X's and O's beamed in by projector. Behind the chair stand two narrow tables topped with an infrared keyboard, vital-signs monitors, and a sleek red cap of electrodes attached to multicolored wires. No noise gets in or out, as special insulation blocks even the electrical signals emitted by lights.

The chamber, located in the University's newly opened Biopsychological Sciences Building, is one of the many sophisticated labs at the disposal of John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake distinguished service professor in psychology. The studies he plans to conduct in the chamber-and another lab just like it-may help answer such questions as how the mind constructs racial prejudice and why lonely people have greater health risks than those who are more social.

Formerly a professor at Ohio State University, his doctoral alma mater, Cacioppo came to Chicago last year for the chance to help build a social psychology program and the brand-new Institute for Mind and Biology. Among the more than 20 piles of paper neatly stacked across his desk and along the windowsill of his Kelly Hall office are materials for a forthcoming Psychological Bulletin paper and for an MIT Press book series that he's editing. Both projects seek to advance the fledgling field of social neuroscience, a discipline first described by Cacioppo and an Ohio State colleague in 1992.

Social neuroscience, explains Cacioppo, explores how the social world--which sculpts human emotions, feelings, and interactions--affects the brain and biology, and vice versa. As a practitioner, he aims to get at a more integrated understanding of behavior, one that connects an individual's thoughts and feelings to measurable changes in brain activity and the body's overall health.

Both scientists and lay people have long believed that the mind and body can strongly influence each other. But, as Cacioppo and other social-neuroscience forerunners--including the U of C's Martha McClintock--point out in a draft of the upcoming Bulletin paper, there have been few multilevel, longitudinal studies showing exactly how genetic makeup, the brain's neural mechanisms, and social influences may be linked.

At last count the author or editor of seven academic books and 200-plus research articles, Cacioppo has helped to lay a strong foundation for the young discipline. Among other advances, he has posited new theories of how the brain processes emotions and has tied social contact to lower blood pressure. "There's a traditional antipathy between biologists with their reliance on concrete anatomy and social scientists with their emphasis on complex sets of abstractions to explain behavior," he says. "But there's value in looking across these levels of analysis."

Cacioppo and his team of graduate and postdoctoral researchers--including one who followed from Ohio State--have begun collecting data for a multiyear study of loneliness in older adults. Concerned with why loneliness has proven to be as unhealthy as obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, they are working to pinpoint its connections to sleep and stress-hormone levels.

In a related effort, Cacioppo says he's close to explaining the nature of loneliness, an understanding he hopes will help reduce its negative health effects. He's now drafting findings from a four-year study of young adults that show shyness is not an innate, unchangeable personality trait, as many psychologists have long held, but rather can be altered by treating an individual's perception of the world. "If loneliness were due to an innate trait like height, there wouldn't be much that could be done about it," he notes. "But if it's more malleable, then we have to understand the processes behind it to reduce it."

Cacioppo also intends to further his nearly two decades of research into what makes people desire to know, learn, and understand. "Just like with exercise, some people think more effortlessly and enjoy it more than others," he says. This spring, he'll study how 80 to 100 college students from Ohio State and Chicago respond via keyboard to a variety of questions presented on a computer screen. He's now working with other Chicago researchers to create a mathematical algorithm that can account for both the speed and substance of the subjects' responses, producing a statistical measure of their cognitive abilities.

After that, Cacioppo expects to begin a series of studies, lasting at least two years, that will pursue how racial prejudices are formed. In the first study, Cacioppo says, he will use special brain-wave monitoring equipment and computer programs to track the neural activity of 30 student volunteers as they respond to images and facts about "greebles," a fictional group of organisms. "If we can understand the psychological and neural means by which racial prejudices form," he says, "then we can help diminish their negative effects." --C.S.


  APRIL 2000

  > > Volume 92, Number 4


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