Seth Pollak, PhD

Position title: Vaughan Bascom Professor of Psychology and Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics

Seth Pollak, PhD

PhD, University of Rochester

Contact Information

Waisman Center Room 391
1500 Highland Avenue
Madison, WI 53705
Lab Website: Child Emotion Laboratory

Research Statement

Research projects in our lab are focused upon children’s emotional development and the relationship between early emotional experience and child psychopathology. We are particularly interested in understanding two related aspects of emotional development:

  • What are the mechanisms of normal emotional development?
  • To what extent are emotions shaped by nature and nurture?
  • Does it make sense to try and separate biology and experience?
  • How are emotions related to the development of psychopathology in children?
  • Might the development of emotional processes help explain the link between people’s early experiences and later development of psychological difficulties?

We are currently pursuing multiple lines of research involving neuroplasticity and psychopathology:

Cognitive and biological aspects of typical emotional development:
Several projects explore the processes and patterns of functional specializations of emotion processing in “normal” children aged 3 – 12 years. Our empirical work always begins with samples of typically developing children. These studies then serve as the point of departure for our studies of neuroplasticiy, atypical development, and risk for psychopathology. Ongoing projects include studies of the processing of faces, emotion recognition and perception, memory for emotion, and regulation of emotional states. This approach provides a basic understanding of the architecture and origins of emotion systems/processes.

The effects of child maltreatment on emotion processes and risk for psychopathology:
A central problem in examining any behavior where nature-nurture interactions are suspected involves the manipulation of these two sources of variance. We use behavioral and psychophysiological measures to study children who have had different kinds of emotional experiences in order to assess the degree to which biological biases in cerebral development depend upon and can be modified by input from the environment. Studies of emotion processing in maltreated children suggest that certain aspects of emotional development are influenced by experience. These include the perception of cues representing threat and the regulation of attention to certain aspects of emotion. These results imply that some neural systems are more modifiable by (and dependent upon) early sensory experience than are others. Using several different experimental approaches, we are exploring the mechanisms that link early emotional experiences with heightened risk for the development of psychopathology.

Early social deprivation and children’s ability to regulate emotion:
This research project deals with the immediate and compelling human needs of children who have been adopted from orphanages in Romania, Russia, and the Ukraine. These children are at a heightened risk for a number of emotional and behavioral difficulties. However, little is known about the development of children who have endured the kind of psychological neglect that is common in many of these orphanages. Because of such early aberrant caregiving environments (including a failure to meet the children’s social and emotional needs) the study of these children will provide an opportunity to explore major scientific questions about the role of early experiences in emotional development of children. We are particularly interested in the underlying mechanisms that link the relationship between early experience and the pervasive behavioral and emotional difficulties affecting many of these children. In addition to working directly with post-institutionalized children and their parents, the project will involve a number of outreach and community service aspects. Support groups for families will be organized and maintained, and workshops will be developed specifically for educators and clinical professionals working with these children.

Work in our laboratory is supported by the The Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation, National Institutes of Mental Health, National Down Syndrome Society, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Selected Publications