How did you narrow in on your field of study?
I find people endlessly interesting, so psychology was a natural fit. I read voraciously as a child, and I was always fascinated by the inner worlds of the characters. Over time I realized that how people experience the world is the theme running through my many questions, but that it’s actually quite difficult to accurately self-report many of our own experiences. During my graduate and post-doctoral training the availability of methods to measure basic behavior and brain function exploded, and I became most interested in leveraging these methods, such as brain imaging and neuroendocrine assays, to better measure the interaction of how people feel with what and how they see.
Please tell me about your research.
I am working to understand what happens in the brain during normative stress states (the same stress states we all experience) and in pathological stress such as what often is experienced after trauma exposure. For example, most people intuitively realize that what we see affects what we feel, but it’s also true that what we feel literally affects what we see. On the positive side, this means that feeling good allows us to see more of what is around us. On the not-so-positive side, stress states limit the scope of what we experience, and extreme stress states such as trauma-related stress can interfere with daily functioning. In my lab we combine clinical interviews, basic behavioral tasks, neuroendocrine assays, and fMRI brain scans to try to understand how stress states such as hypervigilance impact a person’s experience of her environment.
How has your research challenged old ways of thinking?
I think mostly my work challenges old ways of measurement. Instead of relying on the research methods of a single subfield, such as self-report questionnaires of symptoms, I integrate methods from cognitive science, clinical science, neuroendocrinology, and affective neuroscience. A truly integrated approach, in which study design and data interpretation are driven by a very thorough understanding of the theoretical assumptions and methods of multiple subfields, still is relatively unusual. There are many amazing collaborative research teams whose members represent different subfields, but each member of those teams has to just trust that the integration is conceptually and methodologically sound.
What is the potential impact on humanity?
More than half of all people will be exposed to trauma at some point in their lives, and although most people are quite resilient and do not develop lasting symptoms, some people do. My work, including a recent finding that we can use a simple inexpensive and non-invasive saliva sample to predict overactive brain activation in people with trauma-related hypervigilance, hopefully will help us with diagnostic precision and treatment tailoring.
What is one or a few books you’ve read that you’d recommend to your closest friends?
I just finished The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and it’s stunning. I think what made the story so compelling to me was the perspective; Nguyen used the device of having the Vietnamese narrator writing his story for an audience of one other specific Vietnamese character, which removes the automatic explanation/translation/justification that usually is necessary when a minority voice presents a narrative to a majority audience. The result is a completely frank switch of perspective without a majority voice filter, or buffer, if you will.
Is there a book you’ve read that you’d recommend universally (ie. to everyone you meet)?
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky. It’s not literature, and it’s an oldie, but it’s my go-to public service announcement. Stress can be really, really bad for you, and the book explains clearly, humorously, and scientifically exactly why.
What musicians are on your favorite playlist of the moment?
Right now Stevie Wonder, Susan Tedeschi, Bruno Mars, and whatever Spotify throws at me. It’s a weird mix of comfortable classics, a little bit of exploration, and songs that have just the right tempo for running.
Favorite past or current SNL cast member?
Bill Hader. I admire his versatility, but also there is something so completely gleeful about seeing him break character and laugh – it reminds me of every time I’ve found myself laughing helplessly with someone else, and particularly when the context made laughter inappropriate.
Are you on social media? Why or why not?
Minimally. I have a Facebook account that I value for the connections with sets of people from different periods of my life, and I found it extremely useful for connecting with new friends and staying in touch with others during my year-long sabbatical abroad last year. I don’t use other platforms, and now that I’m home in New York I am returning to old habits of checking Facebook once a month or so. I’m an introvert, so although social media obviously (and unfortunately) is a step removed from actual social interaction, I still feel no desire to constantly express myself to an audience or to be a constant captive audience for the expression of others.
How is our culture changing now that we have control over the aspects of ourselves that we present to others?
I think authenticity and presence are harder to find. One of the things I value the most about my close friends is that we actually talk (in person!) with each other about our lives, good and bad and confusing, and we all (mostly) manage to keep the phones off when we’re spending time together.
What regret to you think our culture will have in 20 years related to the rise of the internet and social media?
Paradoxically it often seems that the exponential growth of information available via the internet and social media is negatively correlated with critical thinking. People passively consume a high volume of information without any apparent discrimination between levels of quality and validity, and I find that concerning. I think this tendency will eventually translate into a culture that not only is at very high risk for manipulation, but also is hampered in societal progress, because progress in any area requires critical and original thought.
What personal belief do you hold that’s the most empowering?
I want and deserve to be surrounded only by people who lift me and help me to be more, and it makes me very happy to do the same for them.
What’s a belief you used to have about the world that no longer holds up?
I used to believe that to be kind and compassionate required sometimes tolerating poor treatment for the sake of the other person, who usually would be acting out of fear or pain. I now realize that it is completely possible to be compassionate and caring toward another human from a distance.
When it comes to how you react to and interact with others, what’s your rule of thumb?
I try to make sure that my default is to be kind and to be proactive and not reactive. Life is simpler when I have a clear idea of who I want to be in every interaction, and act accordingly. It is true that everyone wants to be better than someone, and although that urge leads many people to become good people who are excellent in many ways, it pushes others to take the easy route of trying to drag others down. I have learned to gently disengage from anyone who tries to make me or anyone else less than who we are.
I find that the more myself I become, the less I’m like other people. Which is an interesting experience that can be isolating at times. Do you relate to this? What’s been your experience as you embody, embrace and act on more of your ideas that differ from other peoples?
You know, I initially thought that first statement was “the more myself I become, the less I like other people”. Both are true! What I really mean is that I’ve always perceived myself as a bit different from most people, so I’ve never had a single group within which I fit best, for example. Over time I became fairly comfortable in “the space between”, and I’ve learned that it’s often quite easy to connect with people who are very different if I approach them with genuine curiosity and interest. I’m very comfortable with doing my own thing, I have often felt lucky to find members of “my tribe” around the world, and I love a character!
Mariann is wearing Roucha
Nude Jumpsuit (Coming Soon)
Vintage Celine Floral Blouse
Navy Robe Coat
Ecru Button Back Blouse
Ecru Deep-V Neck Dress
On location in the hallways of Mariann's buildling
Photography by Charlie Schuck
Hair by Ezio Diaferia
Styling and Interview by me (Jill)