Taking a Step Closer to the Brain

“It’s been a long and winding road,” says Andero Uusberg (35, pictured in front of the main building of Tartu University with his wife, Helen) about his path to become a PhD in Psychology while working on several socially relevant projects. He defended his thesis last June at Tartu University and will now join the world renowned team of James Gross at Stanford to work on understanding human emotions.

Analyzing electric activity in the brain, Andero followed how people react to looking at emotionally charged photographs in order to understand how feelings influence attention and how controlling attention can in turn change emotions. Based on his findings Andero wrote the thesis “Electroencephalographic Insights into Affective Attention”.

“Given its limited processing capacity, the brain needs to detect, encode and make use of the most important information in a prioritized manner,” Andero makes an introduction to his thesis. “Affective attention complements our abilities to concentrate at will (i.e. top-down attention) and remain vigilant for unpredicted aspects of the environment (i.e. bottom-up attention) with heightened sensitivity to threats and rewards.”

Among other things the thesis pointed out that if one aims to escape from an unpleasant emotion by thinking of something else, the food for this distracting thought needs to be sufficiently complex. If the people being tested were asked to imagine walking in their home town in a very detailed manner, they did not pay as much attention to the pictures they were looking at. But if they were asked to just concentrate on the neutral aspects of the photographs, the affective attention only diminished a little.

Controlling emotions
Andero will keep on looking into the mechanisms of managing emotions at Stanford University. While writing an article on common topic he got acquainted with James J. Gross, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford and Director of the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory. His research focuses on emotion and emotion regulation.

At James Gross’s laboratory, Andero will mostly conduct research relying on the method of electroencephalography (EEG). Andero explains this method as something similar to looking at (what’s wrong with) a car engine by listening to the noises it makes. For those who have never seen how EEG works, it basically looks like a set of electrical wires (electrodes) attached to a person’s scalp that will record the brain’s spontaneous electrical activity over a period of time. When combined with suitable stimulation and task instructions, the electrical signals enable to conclude if and how the person controls his/her emotions.

“James Gross fosters special energy that creates new knowledge while overcoming disciplinary boundaries,” Andero explains what fascinates him about the opportunity of becoming part of Gross’s research team. “I find it attractive that he is very supportive of other researchers and does not think within the confines of “his own church”. He boldly constructs models to forward the field.”

There definitely seems to be no limit if we are looking at ways to research how human brain operates. “It is still unclear how we make the decision to react and regulate our emotions,” Andero claims.

Unlike a common success story of a famous scientist, Andero did not make up his mind to become a researcher in psychology as a kid nor later set his eyes on a specific goal in the academy. He has rather accepted interesting research topics that have, at times, deviated him from his “main” path.

For example, he has worked on the idea that the effects alcohol on someones’ character have a lot to do with the placebo effect. Drinking will yield a result one expects to achieve: if you perceive the effects of alcohol consumption to make you more outgoing, this will be the case; but if you think it will make you aggressive instead, you can make that happen as well.

His PhD-studies in Jüri Allik’s research team at Tartu University lasted for seven years. While being a researcher in the Institute of Experimental Psychology he also worked as a lecturer. Most recently, he compiled a novel undergraduate course “The Main Functions of the Mind” which was nominated for the best online course award in Estonia.

Even before concentrating on his PhD-studies, he tried out several different jobs. He was running the Public Relations Department in Tartu City Council, worked as a host of a morning program in the Estonian National TV and taught budding public speakers for Estonian Debating Society.

His colourful past does not really seem all that surprising since he comes from a multi talented family. Both of his parents are household names in their home town Rapla, with his father Valter being well known for his past in making animated movies and teaching both film and theatre at schools; his mother Urve, also a trained psychologist, conducting choirs both in her home town and at Song Festivals. His younger brothers Uku and Pärt, actor-director and composer respectively, do not need to be further introduced in Estonia.

Needless to say that the interest in the darkest alleys of the human soul seems to run in the family. Andero’s wife, Helen Uusberg is a practicing clinical psychologist currently working on her own PhD thesis in Tartu.

“It’s probably a good method of self-therapy to force myself to network in the American style,” Helen cracks a professional joke while confessing that moving to Stanford makes her slightly anxious. “But I also feel like a kitten taken near a milk bowl.” So she will also try to make her best of the multitude of opportunities the Bay Area offers for finding new challenges once she completes her thesis.

Counting Steps
Having opened his window to a cutting edge university, Andero considers it as a useful investment for a future at a more flexible institution. “Since I’m probably not going to win the academic rat race anyway, there is definitely more freedom at universities like Tartu.” Instead of competing for a narrow peak, he hopes to contribute by bringing different ideas together. “Although I’m not quite the type to be an entrepreneur, I see myself also as bridging business and academia.”

He has already started in this field by working out a program called “Step Counter” that won this year’s Estonian Development Ideas Contest. “Step Counter is a social medium for sharing small behavioral steps each user can take to tackle common aims such as avoiding traffic harms or becoming more innovative,” Andero introduces the idea. The easily achievable personal goals available for selection within the medium are selected from behavioral interventions that have been proven to be effective. “We also hope Step Counter will grow into a collection of personal and tangible gifts for the 100th Anniversary of Estonian Republic at 2018.”

“I did not plan that something as cool as this could come to my life while I wait for an answer from Stanford,” Andero says with a wink, admitting that good things always take their time. But while he is personally taking the great leap across the ocean, he will stay tuned to taking small steps toward a bigger common goal. 

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