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New Leaders Launch Positive Neuroscience

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Award-winning researchers to explore human flourishing
from neural networks to social networks

The Positive Psychology Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the John Templeton Foundation ( have announced the recipients of the Templeton Positive Neuroscience Awards. The project will grant $2.9 million in award funding to 15 new research projects at the intersection of Neuroscience and Positive Psychology.

The winning projects will help us understand how the brain enables human flourishing. They explore a range of topics, from the biological bases of altruism to the effects of positive interventions on the brain.

The Positive Neuroscience Project ( was established in 2008 by Professor Martin E.P. Seligman, Director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, with a $5.8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. In 2009, the project announced the Templeton Positive Neuroscience Awards competition to bring the tools of neuroscience to bear on advances in Positive Psychology. Seligman founded the quickly-growing field of Positive Psychology in 1998 based on the simple yet radical notion that what is good in life is as worthy of scientific study as what is disabling in life.

"Research has shown that positive emotions and interventions can bolster health, achievement, and resilience, and can buffer against depression and anxiety," said Seligman. "And while considerable research in neuroscience has focused on disease, dysfunction, and the harmful effects of stress and trauma, very little is known about the neural mechanisms of human flourishing. Creating this network of positive neuroscience researchers will change that."

Seligman recruited an expert Positive Neuroscience Steering Committee to help guide the Awards competition and select the winners. The Steering Committee includes Turhan Canli, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience Center at Stony Brook University; Joshua D. Greene, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the Moral Cognition Laboratory at Harvard University; Steven Maier, Distinguished Professor and the Director of the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Colorado; Barnaby Marsh, Senior Vice President, Management and Strategic Initiatives for the John Templeton Foundation; Helen Mayberg, Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry and the Dorothy Fuqua Chair in Psychiatric Imaging and Therapeutics at Emory University; Adrian Raine, the Richard Perry Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry, and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania; and Julian Thayer, Eminent Scholar in Health Psychology at the Ohio State University.

The 15 winning proposals - some collaborative, representing 24 researchers in all --were selected by the Steering Committee after a competitive process with 190 submissions from 249 investigators. The Awards represent the highest standards of scientific excellence and identify the winning researchers as future leaders in the new field of Positive Neuroscience. Awardees include:

Abigail Marsh, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, will receive $180,000 to study neural functioning of heroically altruistic people, such as those who donate a kidney to save the life of a complete stranger. Marsh has shown that sensitivity to others' fearful facial expressions predicts altruism better than gender, mood, self-reported empathy, or general sensitivity. Responding to fearful expressions seems to rely on the amygdala and its connections to the prefrontal cortex. Do heroically altruistic people show greatest sensitivity to fearful expressions, more amygdala activation, and enhanced amygdala-prefrontal connectivity?

James K. Rilling, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University, and Richmond R. Thompson, Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Bowdoin College, will receive $200,000 to study why some fathers are better parents than others. Children with nurturing and playful fathers are more likely to be popular with peers and teachers, be fair and generous, and have higher IQs than kids with absent fathers. Rilling and Thompson will compare genotype, hormonal, and neural differences in highly nurturing and less nurturing fathers, as well as men who are not fathers. They will test the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin on men's brains and behavior. Are some men just cads and others good dads, or can we help playboys become better parents?

Kateri McRae and Iris Mauss, Assistant Professors of Psychology at the University of Denver, will receive $180,000 to study the neural bases of resilience. Extreme stress cripples some people, while others bounce back and some even thrive due to post traumatic growth. Research shows that positive emotions and flexible thinking are hallmarks of resilience, and can be developed through training and therapy. McRae and Mauss will study the neural functioning of people recovering from a very stressful event, before and after a five-week training in positive coping skills. They will identify neural systems and adaptations that support positive emotions and resilient growth.

2010 Templeton Positive Neuroscience Awards:

For more information on each Award, including project abstracts and researcher biographies, please click on the individual names below

$200,000 to Adam Anderson from the University of Toronto

$180,000 to Elena Antonova from King's College London

$200,000 to Alon Chen and Elad Schneidman from Weizmann Institute of Science

$200,000 to Britta Hölzel and Mohammed Milad from Harvard Medical School

$180,000 to Psyche Loui from Harvard Medical School

$180,000 to Abigail Marsh from Georgetown University

$180,000 to Kateri McRae and Iris Mauss from the University of Denver

$180,000 to Jason Mitchell and Jamil Zaki from Harvard University

$180,000 to India Morrison from the University of Gothenburg

$200,000 to Stephanie D. Preston from the University of Michigan and Tony W. Buchanan from St. Louis University

$200,000 to James K. Rilling from Emory University and Richmond R. Thompson from Bowdoin College

$250,000 to Laurie Santos from Yale University

$180,000 to William Cunningham from Ohio State University and Alexander Todorov from Princeton University

$200,000 to Tor Wager and Sona Dimidjian from the University of Colorado

$180,000 to Thalia Wheatley from Dartmouth College