CANLab in the Wild: KiwiCAM 2022

Last weekend, members of the CANLab and AfCriNLab (Affective and Criminological Neuroscience Lab) traveled to Massey University in Palmerston North for the annual student conference on Cognition and Memory, known as KiwiCAM. Ren, Jordan, Roydon and Pauline each delivered excellent presentations of their research, with Jordan taking home the prize for Best Non-PhD Talk.

Project Update:

Emotion Regulation in Virtual Reality

In this experiment, we set out to assess whether different emotion regulation strategies could down-regulate fear responses in Virtual Reality (VR). We tested two emotion regulation strategies: ‘cognitive re-appraisal’ and ‘behavioural suppression’. Cognitive Re-appraisal involves re-framing a threatening situation to make it less frightening. Behavioural Suppression, on the other hand, involves adjusting only how we respond to situation: namely, by suppressing our fearful behaviour. According to Gross’ Process Model of Emotion Regulation (Gross, 2015), Cognitive Re-appraisal should be a more effective strategy for down-regulating negative emotions because it intervenes at an earlier stage in the emotion generation process than Behavioural Suppression.

Gross’s (2015) Process Model of Emotion Regulation.

To test this theory, participants put on a VR headset and found themselves standing on a city street. They entered an elevator that transported them up to the 80th floor of a nearby building. Before the doors of the elevator open, participants heard one of three different sets of instructions. Those in the cognitive re-appraisal condition were told that in this virtual world, they were wearing a jetpack, which would automatically save them if they should fall. Those in the behavioural suppression condition were instructed to try to behave in such a way so that no one would be able to detect that they were feeling any emotion. Finally, those assigned to the control condition were told fictional information about the building and the city; nothing about regulating their emotional response to the height exposure. After hearing the instructions, the elevator doors opened to reveal a wooden plank suspended over a perilous drop. Participants were then asked to step onto the plank and walk to the end.

We predicted that those who were in the cognitive re-appraisal condition would report lower ratings of ‘fear’ compared to those in the control condition. We also predicted that those in the cognitive re-appraisal condition would have slower heart rate and lower levels of skin conductance (i.e., that their hands would be less sweaty) relative to controls. When it came to behavioural suppression, we were less confident making a prediction; there is evidence suggesting that suppression is effective, but there is also evidence suggesting that suppressing emotions is counterproductive for down-regulating negative emotions. Therefore, we treated any significant differences from the behavioural suppression group as exploratory findings that would warrant follow-up research.

Average Fear Ratings (out of 9 – top), Skin Conductance Level (bottom left) and Heart Rate (bottom right) across time bottom of the elevator, top of the elevator, start of the plank walk and end of the plank walk). Skin Conductance and Heart rate are reported in log units corrected for baseline levels. Error bars represent the standard error of the mean.

In short, the results did not support our predictions. Self-reported ‘fear’ ratings did not differ as a function of condition and participants in the cognitive re-appraisal condition did not differ from controls when examining their heart rate and skin conductance level on the plank (see Figure 1). Interestingly, those in the behavioural suppression condition showed a significant recovery of their heart rate when they reached the end of the plank, relative to controls. This finding suggests that suppression may be more effective than previously thought. However, without clear theoretical explanation for this difference, we need to replicate this effect before we can confidently claim that it is anything more than a spurious finding. If we can replicate this pattern of results it would challenge the Process Model of Emotion Regulation and instead suggest that fear is better controlled by deploying strategies that target action, rather than regulation strategies that aim to re-frame the meaning of a threatening environment.


Gross, J. J. (2015). Emotion Regulation: Current Status and Future Prospects. Psychological Inquiry, 26(1), 1–26.

Rosie investigates the link between brain activity patterns and depression

Rosie’s research into the link between patterns of brain activity and susceptibility to depression has been gaining attention recently after her successes at the VUW and National 3 Minute Thesis competitions.

You can read about her research, and in the video learn more about her experiment, in this article.

Hazel Godfrey, PhD student in the CANlab publishes an article – Does pain always lead to poorer cognitive performance?

One of our lab members, Hazel Godfrey, has recently published an article in the summer issue of Ngau Mamae: Quarterly Publication of the New Zealand Pain Society. The article outlines the motivated cognition theory, describing an alternate to the ‘deficit only’ view of cognition in pain. Hazel suggests that, rather than impairing cognition, pain directs cognitive resources towards pain-relevant information.

Read the article here:

Godfrey, H.K. (2015). Does pain always lead to poorer cognitive performance? Ngau Mamae: Quarterly Publication of the New Zealand Pain Society, Summer Issue.

Well done Hazel!