Lily Reck: 2023 Undergraduate Student Award Winner 

Q: Congratulations Lily! Could you please introduce a little about yourself?

My name is Lily Reck, and I am graduating from George Washington University in Fall 2023 with a BS in Cognitive Neuroscience and minors in Psychological & Brain Sciences and Sociology. Though I grew up in Berks County, Pennsylvania, I have quickly transitioned to calling DC “home.” 

Q: Tell us more about your area of research?

Overall, the research in our lab aims to better understand the relationship between cognitive performance and emotion, primarily through studying the Stroop task. In a Color Stroop task for example, participants will be presented with a color patch with a superimposed color word, which will either be congruent with (match) or incongruent with (not match) the background color. The participants’ task is to identify the color of the background patch, while ignoring the overlapping distractor word. In order to successfully complete a task such as the Color Stroop task, it is critical to exert the proper level of cognitive effort, which refers to the processes of focusing on task-relevant information while ignoring any distractor stimuli. In the Color Stroop task, incongruent trials require increased cognitive effort in order to suppress the instinctive response to the color word, while congruent trials require low-effort, since the semantic meaning of the distractor word and the color patch do not conflict.  

Our lab has previously established that the level of cognitive effort exerted during a task can foster different emotional consequences. More specifically, participants respond significantly faster to human facial stimuli associated with a high level of cognitive effort, but only when that stimuli is expressing positive emotion. My specific line of research attempts to help explain this bias towards positive emotion for high-effort stimuli, by focusing on the experienced emotion of participants. Initial results show that participants in a high-effort task condition rate their emotional state to be overall significantly higher throughout the experiment than those in a low-effort condition. These findings will be presented in a poster at both the Association for Psychological Science 35th Annual meeting and the Vision Sciences Society 22nd Annual meeting in May 2023, sponsored by the National Eye Institute Early Career Scientist Travel Grant, the George Washington University (GWU) Sigelman Undergraduate Research Enhancement Award, and the GWU Columbian College of Arts & Sciences Scholarly Travel Fund. 

Going forward, I plan to gain a better understanding of what aspect of cognitively effortful tasks lead to more positive moods by dissociating between two hypotheses: the successful performance hypothesis and the task difficultyhypothesis. First, the successful performance hypothesis emphasizes that in the high cognitive effort condition, participants simply have more opportunities to resolve the conflict between the incongruent distractor color word and the target color patch. This sheer increase in the frequency of successful conflict resolution could subsequently result in increased positive mood, as the increased exertion of cognitive effort may increase the value of success. Alternatively, but not mutually exclusively, the task difficulty hypothesis proposes that the process of encountering an incongruent distractor color word in the low-effort condition–which has mostly congruent trials–may result in temporarily decreased mood due to the unpleasantness of the unexpected challenge. While encountering an unusually easier (i.e., congruent) trial in the high-effort condition–which has mostly incongruent trials–may be regarded more positively, even though their overall block of trials requires increased cognitive effort. Data collection and analysis is ongoing for the experiments testing these two hypotheses, with findings likely to be presented at the Psychonomic Society’s 64th Annual Meeting and OPAM 31 in November of 2023. 

Q:  What inspired your interest in this topic? 

My interest in this research topic blossomed two years ago, when I started taking Cognitive Psychology with Dr. Sohn and joined his lab later that semester. Though I had taken AP Psychology in high school and found the content incredibly fascinating, the material rarely dove into the experimental details. However, upon studying and working closely with Dr. Sohn, I developed a great appreciation and passion for the nuances of research in the field of psychological and brain sciences. What inspires me most about the specific research topic of cognitive performance and emotion are its far-reaching implications. A more comprehensive understanding of the factors that influence our cognitive performance as well as our emotional state of being could greatly impact how we operate in and interact with society as a whole. Because of these real-world consequences, this research is not only inspiring but also incredibly rewarding to conduct and subsequently share with the community at large. 

Q:  This award recognizes the broader impact of your work. What are the societal implications from your work? 

The current study showed how perceiving positive emotion in a challenging task environment positively influences our own experienced emotions. Firstly, understanding the emotional impact of exerting cognitive effort is crucial for best informing policy decisions, especially in professional settings for optimizing productivity in the presence of frequent distractors. Moreover, the relevance of this research to overall executive function may facilitate outreach to non-academic constituencies. Lastly, previous research has never separately studied successful performance and task difficulty in relation to cognitively challenging tasks, and so the results from these experiments could greatly impact the field at large in how cognitive conflict is studied and perceived in relation to experienced emotion in the future. 

Q:  What are your next steps academically/professionally?  

This Summer 2023, I will continue to volunteer in Dr. Sohn’s cognitive neuroscience research laboratory through the support of the GWU Luther Rice Fellowship, in addition to working in Dr. Lutas 

‘ Neuromodulation & Motivation neuroscience lab at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases branch of the NIH. This Summer, I will be presenting at VSS and APS, and in the Fall, I plan to present at OPAM and Psychonomics, as well as attend SFN. After I graduate in Fall 2023, I want to continue to pursue a career in research. Eventually, I intend to enter a PhD program in cognitive neuroscience or brain and behavior sciences but am still unsure of exactly what I want to focus my studies on. Therefore, directly after my time at GWU, I plan to dedicate a few years to working in a variety of research laboratory positions to gain a better understanding of my options in the field.  

Q:  If you are not studying, what are you most likely to be doing? 

My course load is consistently quite rigorous, but when I am not studying, I spend my time at university primarily volunteering in Dr. Sohn’s cognitive neuroscience research laboratory, working as a Biology laboratory teaching assistant, and serving on the executive board of two service organizations. In my free time, I love taking nature walks, listening to music, watching anime, and spending time with loved ones.