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AUFF’s talent award to Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen

Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen wins the Aarhus University Research Foundation talent award for showing that emotions are less physically rooted in the elderly.

Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen Photo: Anne Kring

AUFF writes the following about Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen's research:

Emotion research

The older we become, the happier we are. In a nutshell, this is the fascinating phenomenon that psychologist Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen explored in her PhD project.

“Previous research has shown that the ratio of positive to negative feelings typically shifts in a positive direction as people age. At the same time, it’s also a fact that our bodies age and become less reactive, both physiologically and hormonally. So I wanted to investigate the extent to which and how physiological changes correlate with changes in our emotional lives,” she explained.

Contemporary research on emotion often focuses on the physiological as precursors to physiological experience; formerly, physiological responses were understood exclusively as responses to feelings. However, this new approach to the physiology of emotion had not yet been applied to research into emotional aging. Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen’s work brings these advances into the field with a theoretical study, a meta-analysis and an experiment.

New theoretical framework

“My theoretical analysis is about how modern theories of emotion can be used to frame emotional aging in a way that opens up the possibility of studying the body as a potential source of changes in our emotional lives in adulthood. This paves the way for new research questions that can potentially contribute to a better understanding of the role of the body in emotional aging,” Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen said.

To uncover age-related differences in physiological and self-reported emotional responses, she performed a meta-analysis of 74 experimental studies that explored how test subjects in different age groups react to emotional stimuli. Her meta-analysis of these studies showed that younger subjects exhibited stronger physiological reactions – for example heart rate and sweat rate responses. But when asked about their feelings, older subjects actually reported stronger feelings than younger subjects.

“In our own experimental study, we measured the response of younger and older test subject to images that provoked feelings of disgust and sadness, while we also studied their interoceptive sensitivity, or their ability to register signals from their own bodies. And what we found was that there was a correlation between interoceptive sensitivity and the strength of their emotional response to the images among younger subjects, while this correlation was not evident among older subjects,” Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen explained.

Clinical implications

“Maybe we form our emotional experiences on the background of different information than physical responses as we get older. This may mean that if I’m a psychologist who’s going to talk about feelings with a younger client, it’s an advantage to ask about what physical responses she feels, but with an older client, I may need to find a different way to access their emotional experience,” Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen said.

She stressed that such conclusions were speculative, as this research area is still in its infancy. This is one reason she’s interested in continuing her work in this field. In her current postdoc project at AU, she is primarily focussing on the effects of body position on emotional experience.

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