A Rutgers laboratory takes a clinical look at the human experience

A Rutgers laboratory takes a clinical look at the human experience

Psychology Professor Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones, center, and lab assistants Adam Mussell and Caroline Coffield, are challenging common assumptions about how the environment interacts with human nature.
Nick Romanenko
Do light and humidity influence memory, performance, or how people cope with stress? Can a pleasant or noxious odor change one’s mood or well-being?

These are hardly the kinds of questions that can be studied under a microscope.Yet researchers at Rutgers’ Human Emotions Laboratory on the Livingston Campus have developed tools to quantify the relationship between the environment and emotional health – and the results are piquing the interest of those outside of academia.

According to Psychology Professor Jeannette Haviland-Jones, who founded the lab 17 years ago, she and her staff – primarily graduate and undergraduate student researchers – have never been busier. Grants are coming in to study workplace air quality, infant attention, personal hygiene products, and medical treatment settings.

Many of these clients are corporations motivated by a sense of social responsibility and the bottom line: They have a stake in assessing the impact of the environment on productivity, attitude, and general well-being.

“There is growing recognition in the business world that the environment affects human beings’ psychological characteristics, such as IQ, EQ, motor skills, memory, and autonomic system stress,” Haviland-Jones said. “All of a sudden people are interested in building supportive environments to achieve goals that can be measured. This is a new area – 10 years ago it didn’t exist.”

Arriving at Rutgers in 1971 with a newly minted Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Michigan State University, Haviland-Jones centered her research and teaching on emotions and development, especially during periods of change. She has studied gender differences in emotion, patterns of emotions in infants mirroring their mothers’ expressions, emotional expression in men with AIDS, and even déjà vu, which involves memory and cognition. One project with Rutgers psychologist Deidre Kramer required poring over Anne Frank’s words to decode the emotions in her famous diary, which Haviland-Jones calls “a startling example of cognitive adolescent development from a truly remarkable person.”

This kind of innovative research is what Haviland-Jones had in mind when in 1990 she established the Human Emotions Laboratory in Tillett Hall, home to the psychology undergraduate program. She sought to create “a supportive environment of lively investigation” and hoped that lab researchers would publish scholarly articles in prestigious journals. (They have.) But never did she imagine that the lab’s research would show up in popular magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and O; in national newspapers, such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune; and, most recently, on Korean television.

Blame it all on the flower study of 2005. “After that, the phone never stopped ringing,” said Haviland-Jones, who, with her colleagues, published a series of studies that linked flowers to happiness, memory, and social networking.

Haviland-Jones said that the flower study resonated with the public. “People take the beauty of flowering plants for granted, but domestic flowers have survived and flourished because we take care of them,” said Haviland-Jones. “We have selectively bred them over the years, like pet puppies, for no other purpose than emotional satisfaction. As a result, cultivated flowers have evolved to lighten and brighten our moods, and some are very, very good at it.”

More important than its celebrated status, the flower research opened up a new area of study for the lab: olfaction. “Smell has been the forgotten sense, partly because it was so poorly understood,” Haviland-Jones said. All that changed, however, in 2004, she said, when Richard Axel and Linda Buck won the Nobel Prize in Physiology for their discovery of the gene family responsible for odorant receptors and clarification of how the olfactory system works.

According to Haviland-Jones, the olfactory system is becoming increasingly significant in the research arena, particularly investigations into why certain odors elicit emotional responses and behaviors. During the last two years, a great deal of the lab’s work has focused on peoples’ own production of mood odors as well as their responses to human and nonhuman odors; odors’ influence on memory, attention, and autonomic responses related to stress; and odors as nonverbal emotion signals.

Some of the sensory experiments can lend to technical silliness, Haviland-Jones admits – like when researchers employ a small vacuum to capture a smell from a human underarm. But such studies can provide valuable information about the effects of body odors on mood, memory, and the perception of other people.

Caroline Coffield, a doctoral student in psychology who works as an assistant in the lab, conducts research on emotional expression in children with autism, investigating environmental settings most effective for learning. She and fellow graduate student Estelle Mayhew recently completed a study of how infants respond to people expressing happy or sad emotions. They found that exposing infants to a pleasant and familiar odor, such as baby powder, allows them to stay calmer and more attentive when exposed to a sad face, buffering against some of the negative effects seen in infants who are not exposed to an odor.

“It’s valuable to know that there are small ways that we can alter our surroundings to help ourselves more quickly overcome everyday stressors,” Coffield said.

One of the most exciting projects at the lab is experiments with a half-million dollar, state-of-the art heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system. Purchased by an industry client for the Livingston Learning Center in Tillett Hall, its purpose is to assess the effect of a “clean” environment on learning.

“This is an air-filtering system beyond anything anyone else has,” said Adam Mussell, a recent Rutgers’ graduate who has continued with the lab while also working towards a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania. “Our goal is to find out whether there is some type of indoor air quality that lends itself to optimal functioning.”

The atmosphere in the Learning Center has no carbon dioxide or ozone and only controlled “natural, healthy” air particles are allowed in. Students visiting the center are asked to go to a computer and grade the air by taking a one-minute memory task and a one-minute vigilance task. Some students also take a three to five minute stressor task while their heart rate is monitored. The data is presently being mined to test the influence of the air, light, and humidity on the students’ memory and vigilance. There may well be some health consequences of this research.

“Western psychology assumes a person’s IQ is always his IQ, a person’s depressive nature is always her depressive nature,” Haviland-Jones said. “The Human Emotions Laboratory is challenging the boundaries of this common assumption. What if you could be smarter when the air is cleaner or happier when a flower scents your room?”