Research

The big picture: What happens in the brain when we think about our own health or are exposed to health-related messages?

I am interested in how health-related feelings and cognitions are represented in the brain and how these processes are influenced by pro-health commmunication. This research bridges across multiple fields including communication science, psychology, neuroscience, and public health. Much of my work involves neuroimaging measures, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or electroencephalography (EEG). The main advantage of using these measures is that they can allow us to capture affective and intuitive processes, which are widely regarded as major drivers of health behavior change.

Specific topics: Read about recent lines of research
Health Communication: How do we receive and respond to health communication messages?

Communicating about health risks is important because the leading causes of morbidity are preventable (e.g. smoking, malnutrition, alcohol consumption). Informing individuals about health risks and motivating them to adopt healthier lifestyles may thus prevent many diseases. Research within the fields of health and social psychology, communication science, and public health/pro-health marketing has led to numerous insights regarding effective risk communication. A neuroscientific perspective offers several advantages to complement these approaches. In particular, neuroscientific measures open up a new window on how health risk messages engage brain regions that are essential for motivational, emotional, and self-relevant processing.

In a recent study, conducted during the recent H1N1 outbreak, we examined the neural processing of a real-world TV documentary about H1N1 in two groups of participants who differed in their preexisting H1N1 risk perceptions. We found that neural activity in sensory-perceptual brain regions was very similar across all viewers. This was not surprising, because all viewers saw the same TV documentary. However, neural responses in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC, a post-sensory brain region), were more strongly coupled among viewers with high-risk perception. Interestingly, classical fMRI studies have associated this region with self-related processing and the appraisal of threatening information. This suggests that processing of the incoming stimulus information interacted with receivers’ H1N1 risk perception, resulting in more strongly aligned brain activity patterns among viewers who regarded H1N1 as risky (‘message-receiver-interaction’). Overall, this approach demonstrates how neuroscience can be used to study the neural processing of fully realistic mass media messages with a focus on shared neural processes between receivers.

  • [PDF] [DOI] [CODE] Kranzler, E. C., Schmälzle, R., O’Donnell, M. B., Pei, R., & Falk, E. B.. (2019). Adolescent Neural Responses to Antismoking Messages, Perceived Effectiveness, and Sharing Intention. Media Psychology, 22(2), 323–349.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{kranzler2019adolescents,
    author = {Kranzler, Elissa C and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and O'Donnell, Matthew Brook and Pei, Rui and Falk, Emily B},
    title = {Adolescent Neural Responses to Antismoking Messages, Perceived Effectiveness, and Sharing Intention},
    journal = {Media Psychology},
    year = {2019},
    volume = {22},
    number = {2},
    pages = {323--349},
    month = mar,
    code = {https://osf.io/gz5uv/},
    abstract = {ABSTRACTHealth communication delivered via media channels can substantially influence adolescents? choices, and the effects of messages are amplified through interpersonal sharing. However, the underlying psychological and neurocognitive mechanisms that influence message effectiveness and likelihood of sharing are not well understood, especially among adolescents. Based on research in adults, we hypothesized and preregistered that message-induced neural activation in regions associated with self-reflection, social processing, and positive valuation would be related to greater perceived ad effectiveness and intentions to share messages. We focused on brain activity in meta-analytically defined regions associated with these three processes as 40 adolescent nonsmokers viewed advertisements from ?The Real Cost? antismoking campaign. Perceived message effectiveness was positively associated with brain activity in the hypothesized social processing regions and marginally associated with brain activity in self-relevance regions, but not associated with brain activity in valuation regions. By contrast, intentions to share the messages were not associated with neural response in these 3 systems. In contrast to previous neuroimaging studies with adult subjects, our findings highlight the role of social cognition in adolescent processing of persuasive messages. We discuss the possibility that the mental processes responsive to effective and shareworthy messages may reflect developmental processes pertinent to media effects.},
    doi = {https://doi.org/10.1080/15213269.2018.1476158},
    publisher = {Routledge}
    }
  • [DOI] Kranzler, E. C., Schmälzle, R., O’Donnell, M. B., Pei, R., & Falk, E. B.. (2019). Message-Elicited Brain Response Moderates the Relationship Between Opportunities for Exposure to Anti-Smoking Messages and Message Recall. Journal of Communication, jqz035, 1-23.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{kranzler2019moderation,
    author = {Kranzler, Elissa C and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and O'Donnell, Matthew Brook and Pei, Rui and Falk, Emily B},
    title = {Message-Elicited Brain Response Moderates the Relationship Between Opportunities for Exposure to Anti-Smoking Messages and Message Recall},
    journal = {Journal of Communication},
    year = {2019},
    volume = {jqz035},
    pages = {1-23},
    doi = {https://doi.org/10.1093/joc/jqz035},
    publisher = {Routledge}
    }
  • [PDF] [DOI] Pei, R., Schmälzle, R., Kranzler, E. C., O’Donnell, M. B., & Falk, E. B.. (2019). Adolescents’ Neural Response to Tobacco Prevention Messages and Sharing Engagement. America Journal of Preventive Medicine, 56(2S1), S40–S48.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{pei2019adolescents,
    author = {Pei, Rui and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Kranzler, Elissa C and O'Donnell, Matthew B and Falk, Emily B},
    title = {Adolescents' Neural Response to Tobacco Prevention Messages and Sharing Engagement},
    journal = {America Journal of Preventive Medicine},
    year = {2019},
    volume = {56},
    number = {2S1},
    pages = {S40--S48},
    month = feb,
    abstract = {INTRODUCTION: Interpersonal communication can reinforce media effects on health behavior. Recent studies have shown that brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex during message exposure can predict message-consistent behavior change. Key next steps include examining the relationship between neural responses to ads and measures of interpersonal message retransmission that can be collected at scale. METHODS: Neuroimaging, self-report, and automated linguistic measures were utilized to investigate the relationships between neural responses to tobacco prevention messages, sharing engagement, and smoking-relevant belief changes. Thirty-seven adolescent nonsmokers viewed 12 ads from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's ``The Real Cost'' campaign during a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan session (2015-2016). Data were analyzed between 2016 and 2017. The extent that participants talked in detail about the main message of the ads, or sharing engagement, was measured through transcripts of participants' subsequent verbal descriptions using automated linguistic coding. Beliefs about the consequences of smoking were measured before and after the main experiment using surveys. RESULTS: Increased brain activation in self- and value-related subregions of the medial prefrontal cortex during message exposure was associated with subsequent sharing engagement when participants verbally talked about the ads. In addition, sharing engagement was significantly associated with changes in participants' beliefs about the social consequences of smoking. CONCLUSIONS: Neural activity in self- and value-related subregions of the medial prefrontal cortex during exposure to ``The Real Cost'' campaign was associated with subsequent sharing engagement, which in turn was related to social belief change. These results provide new insights into the link between neurocognitive responses to ads, the content of interpersonal sharing, and downstream health-relevant outcomes. SUPPLEMENT INFORMATION: This article is part of a supplement entitled Fifth Anniversary Retrospective of ``The Real Cost,'' the Food and Drug Administration's Historic Youth Smoking Prevention Media Campaign, which is sponsored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.},
    doi = {https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2018.07.044},
    language = {en}
    }
  • [PDF] [DOI] Imhof, M. A., Schmälzle, R., Renner, B., & Schupp, H. T.. (2017). How real-life health messages engage our brains: Shared processing of effective anti-alcohol videos.. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, 12(7), 1188-1196.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{imhof2017how,
    author = {Imhof, Martin A and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Renner, Britta and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {How real-life health messages engage our brains: Shared processing of effective anti-alcohol videos.},
    journal = {Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience},
    year = {2017},
    volume = {12},
    number = {7},
    pages = {1188-1196},
    month = {Apr},
    abstract = {Health communication via mass media is an important strategy when targeting risky drinking, but many questions remain about how health messages are processed and how they unfold their effects within receivers. Here we examine how the brains of young adults - a key target group for alcohol prevention - 'tune in' to real-life health prevention messages about risky alcohol use. In a first study, a large sample of authentic public service announcements (PSAs) targeting the risks of alcohol was characterized using established measures of message effectiveness. In the main study, we used inter-subject correlation analysis of fMRI data to examine brain responses to more and less effective PSAs in a sample of young adults. We find that more effective messages command more similar responses within widespread brain regions, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, insulae, and precuneus. In previous research these regions have been related to narrative engagement, self-relevance, and attention towards salient stimuli. The present study thus suggests that more effective health prevention messages have greater 'neural reach', i.e. they engage the brains of audience members' more widely. This work outlines a promising strategy for assessing the effects of health communication at a neural level.},
    address = {England},
    doi = {http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsx044},
    issn = {1749-5016 (Linking)},
    keywords = {alcohol, fMRI, health communication, inter-subject correlation, public service announcements, self}
    }
  • [PDF] Schmälzle, R., Häcker, F., Honey Christopher J, & Hasson, U.. (2015). Engaged Listeners: Shared neural processing of powerful political speeches. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neurosciences, 1, 168-169.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzle2015engaged,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and H{\"a}cker, Frank and Honey, Christopher J, and Hasson, U},
    title = {Engaged Listeners: Shared neural processing of powerful political speeches},
    journal = {Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neurosciences},
    year = {2015},
    volume = {1},
    pages = {168-169},
    abstract = {Powerful speeches can captivate audiences, while weaker speeches fail to engage their listeners. What is happening in the brains of a captivated audience? Here we assess audience-wide functional brain dynamics during listening to speeches of varying rhetorical quality. The speeches were given by German politicians and evaluated as rhetorically powerful or weak. Listening to each of the speeches induced similar neural response time courses, as measured by inter-subject correlation analysis, in widespread brain regions involved in spoken language processing. Crucially, alignment of the time course across listeners was stronger for rhetorically powerful speeches, especially for bilateral regions of the superior temporal gyri and medial prefrontal cortex. Thus, during powerful speeches, listeners as a group are more coupled to each other, suggesting that powerful speeches are more potent in taking control of the listeners' brain responses. Weaker speeches were processed more heterogeneously, although they still prompted substantially correlated responses. These patterns of coupled neural responses bear resemblance to metaphors of resonance, which are often invoked in discussions of speech impact, and contribute to the literature on auditory attention under natural circumstances. Overall, this approach opens up possibilities for research on the neural mechanisms mediating the reception of entertaining or persuasive messages.}
    }
  • [PDF] Schmälzle, R., Häcker, F., Renner, B., Honey, C. J., & Schupp, H. T.. (2013). Neural correlates of risk perception during real-life risk communication. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(25), 10340–10347.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzle2013neural,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and H{\"a}cker, Frank and Renner, Britta and Honey, Christopher J and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {Neural correlates of risk perception during real-life risk communication},
    journal = {The Journal of Neuroscience},
    year = {2013},
    volume = {33},
    number = {25},
    pages = {10340--10347},
    abstract = {During global health crises, such as the recent H1N1 pandemic, the mass media provide the public with timely information regarding risk. To obtain new insights into how these messages are received, we measured neural data while participants, who differed in their preexisting H1N1 risk perceptions, viewed a TV report about H1N1. Intersubject correlation (ISC) of neural time courses was used to assess how similarly the brains of viewers responded to the TV report. We found enhanced intersubject correlations among viewers with high-risk perception in the anterior cingulate, a region which classical fMRI studies associated with the appraisal of threatening information. By contrast, neural coupling in sensory-perceptual regions was similar for the high and low H1N1-risk perception groups. These results demonstrate a novel methodology for understanding how real-life health messages are processed in the human brain, with particular emphasis on the role of emotion and differences in risk perceptions.},
    key = {JoN},
    publisher = {Soc Neuroscience}
    }
Intuitive Risk Perception: A tinge of anxiety?

Traditionally, risk perception has been conceptualized as cognitive beliefs about the probability and the severity of health hazards. This ‘risk as analysis’ view has recently been complemented by a much more plausible model: According to the ‘risk as feelings’ view, affect and intuition play a key role in everday risk perception. However, this mode of risk perception is more experiential, largely detached from the language system, and thus generally difficult to study. Modern neuroimaging technologies, however, are suited to examine such processes. We therefore used high-density EEG/ERP (event related brain potentials) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to examine the mechanisms of intuitive risk perception in the health domain. For example, in a series of ERP studies we captured the electrocortical signature of HIV risk perception, demonstrating key characteristics of intuitive processing such as their implicit, affective nature, and their remarkable speed. Using fMRI we then also revealed which regions of the brain respond differently to risky vs. safe stimuli. We found that this was the case in the bilateral anterior insulae and mediofrontal cortex, which are both implicated in a broad variety of emotional processes. Our long-term goal is to provide a neuroscientific account of what happens between (risk) perception and (risk-avoiding) action. A better understanding of these mechanisms can then guide the development of new or more effective prevention efforts.

  • [PDF] [DOI] [CODE] Schmälzle, R., Hartung, F., Barth, A., Imhof, M. A., Kenter, A., Renner, B., & Schupp, H. T.. (2019). Visual cues that predict intuitive risk perception in the case of HIV. PLoS One, 14(2), e0211770.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzle2019cues,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Hartung, Freda-Marie and Barth, Alexander and Imhof, Martin A and Kenter, Alex and Renner, Britta and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {Visual cues that predict intuitive risk perception in the case of HIV},
    journal = {PLoS One},
    year = {2019},
    volume = {14},
    number = {2},
    pages = {e0211770},
    month = feb,
    code = {https://github.com/nomcomm/RiskCues_PlosOne},
    __markedentry = {[Ralf:6]},
    abstract = {Field studies indicate that people may form impressions about potential partners' HIV risk, yet lack insight into what underlies such intuitions. The present study examined which cues may give rise to the perception of riskiness. Towards this end, portrait pictures of persons that are representative of the kinds of images found on social media were evaluated by independent raters on two sets of data: First, sixty visible cues deemed relevant to person perception, and second, perceived HIV risk and trustworthiness, health, and attractiveness. Here, we report correlations between cues and perceived HIV risk, exposing cue-criterion associations that may be used to infer intuitively HIV risk. Second, we trained a multiple cue-based model to forecast perceived HIV risk through cross-validated predictive modelling. Trained models accurately predicted how 'risky' a person was perceived (r = 0.75) in a novel sample of portraits. Findings are discussed with respect to HIV risk stereotypes and implications regarding how to foster effective protective behaviors.},
    doi = {http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0211770},
    language = {en}
    }
  • [PDF] [DOI] [CODE] Schmälzle, R., Imhof, M. A., Kenter, A., Renner, B., & Schupp, H. T.. (2019). Impressions of HIV risk online: Brain potentials while viewing online dating profiles. Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 14(2), e1.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzle2019onlinedating,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Imhof, Martin A and Kenter, Alex and Renner, Britta and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {Impressions of HIV risk online: Brain potentials while viewing online dating profiles},
    journal = {Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience},
    year = {2019},
    volume = {14},
    number = {2},
    pages = {e1},
    month = jun,
    code = {https://github.com/nomcomm/RiskProfiles_CABN},
    __markedentry = {[Ralf:6]},
    abstract = {There is an increasing trend to use online dating to meet potential partners. Previous studies in offline contexts indicate that people may judge the risk of sexually transmitted infections based on a person s appearance. Online dating profiles commonly present profile pictures and verbal self:descriptions. To examine the integration of verbal and visual risk information, the current event:related potential study used a simulated dating platform in which verbal:descriptive information (low vs. high verbal risk) was presented, followed by a photograph (low vs. high visual risk). Results indicated main effects of verbal and visual risk. Specifically, high compared to low risk verbal profiles elicited a relative negative shift over occipito:parietal sensor sites between 260 and 408 ms. Furthermore, a sustained occipital negativity (132:500 ms) and central positivity (156:272 ms) was observed for high as compared to low visual risk profiles. There was also evidence for the integration of verbal and visual risk formation, as indicated by distinct positive ERP shift occurred between 272:428 ms over anterior temporal regions when a high risk photograph was preceded by high risk verbal information. This suggests that verbal:descriptive information is integrated with visual appearance early in the processing stream. The distinct response for high verbal and visual information extends the notion of an alarm function ascribed to risk perception by demonstrating integration about multiple sources. Simulating online dating platforms provides a useful tool to examine intuitive risk perception.},
    doi = {https://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-019-00731-1},
    language = {en}
    }
  • [PDF] [DOI] Schmälzle, R., Renner, B., & Schupp, H. T.. (2017). Health risk perception and risk communication. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzle2017healthrisk2,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Renner, Britta and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {Health risk perception and risk communication},
    journal = {Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences},
    year = {2017},
    abstract = {Risk perceptions are a prerequisite for protective action. Both scientists and practitioners need to understand the multi-faceted nature of health risk perception and risk communication. This article reviews insights from psychophysiological research, with a focus on neuroscientific approaches that examine the biological basis of risk perception in the brain and capture the brain response to health and risk messages. Specifically, we discuss the key role of intuitive processes for personal risk perception and the difference between absolute and comparative risk. We then describe the relationship between risk perception and health behavior change and present recent work that measures responses to health prevention messages. Finally, we discuss implications for translation to public health policy and point to needs for future research. A better understanding of the biological roots of personal risk perception and how these can be addressed via risk communication informs policymakers in designing effective public health interventions.},
    doi = {http://dx.doi.org/10.1177%2F2372732217720223}
    }
  • [PDF] Häcker, F., Schmälzle, R., Renner, B., & Schupp, H. T.. (2014). Neural correlates of HIV risk feelings. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, doi:10.1093/scan/nsu093(nsu093), 1-6.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{haecker2014neural,
    author = {H{\"a}cker, Frank and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Renner, Britta and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {Neural correlates of HIV risk feelings},
    journal = {Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience},
    year = {2014},
    volume = {doi:10.1093/scan/nsu093},
    number = {nsu093},
    pages = {1-6},
    abstract = {Field studies on HIV risk perception suggest that people rely on impressions they have about the safety of their partner. The present fMRI study investigated the neural correlates of the intuitive perception of risk. First, during an implicit condition, participants viewed a series of unacquainted persons and performed a task unrelated to HIV risk. In the following explicit condition, participants evaluated the HIV risk for each presented person. Contrasting responses for high and low HIV risk revealed that risky stimuli evoked enhanced activity in the anterior insula and medial prefrontal regions, which are involved in salience processing and frequently activated by threatening and negative affect-related stimuli. Importantly, neural regions responding to explicit HIV risk judgments were also enhanced in the implicit condition, suggesting a neural mechanism for intuitive impressions of riskiness. Overall, these findings suggest the saliency network as neural correlate for the intuitive sensing of risk.},
    publisher = {Oxford University Press}
    }
  • [PDF] Barth, A., Schmälzle, R., Renner, B., & Schupp, H. T.. (2013). Neural correlates of risk perception: HIV vs. leukemia. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 7(1), 1.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{barth2013neural,
    author = {Barth, Alexander and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Renner, Britta and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {Neural correlates of risk perception: HIV vs. leukemia},
    journal = {Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience},
    year = {2013},
    volume = {7},
    number = {1},
    pages = {1},
    abstract = {Field studies on HIV risk perception suggest that people may rely on impressions they have about the safety of their partner. Previous studies show that individuals perceived as risky? regarding HIV elicit a differential brain response in both earlier (~200-350 ms) and later (~350-700 ms) time windows compared to those perceived as safe. This raises the question whether this event-related brain potential (ERP) response is specific to contagious life-threatening diseases or a general mechanism triggered by life-threatening but non-contagious diseases. In the present study, we recorded dense sensor EEG while participants (N = 36) evaluated photographs of unacquainted individuals for either HIV or leukemia risk. The ERP results replicated previous findings revealing earlier and later differential brain responses towards individuals perceived as high risk for HIV. However, there were no significant ERP differences for high vs. low leukemia risk. Rather than reflecting a generic response to disease, the present findings suggest that intuitive judgments of HIV risk are at least in part specific to sexually transmitted diseases.}
    }
  • [PDF] Renner, B., Schmälzle, R., & Schupp, H. T.. (2012). First impressions of HIV risk: it takes only milliseconds to scan a stranger. PloS One, 7(1), e30460.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{renner2012first,
    author = {Renner, Britta and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {First impressions of HIV risk: it takes only milliseconds to scan a stranger},
    journal = {PloS One},
    year = {2012},
    volume = {7},
    number = {1},
    pages = {e30460},
    abstract = {Research indicates that many people do not use condoms consistently but instead rely on intuition to identify sexual partners high at risk for HIV infection. The present studies examined neural correlates for first impressions of HIV risk and determined the association of perceived HIV risk with other trait characteristics. Participants were presented with 120 self-portraits retrieved from a popular online photo-sharing community (www.flickr.com). Factor analysis of various explicit ratings of trait characteristics yielded two orthogonal factors: (1) a 'valence-approach' factor encompassing perceived attractiveness, healthiness, valence, and approach tendencies, and (2) a 'safeness' factor, entailing judgments of HIV risk, trustworthiness, and responsibility. These findings suggest that HIV risk ratings systematically relate to cardinal features of a high-risk HIV stereotype. Furthermore, event-related brain potential recordings revealed neural correlates of first impressions about HIV risk. Target persons perceived as risky elicited a differential brain response in a time window from 220-340 ms and an increased late positive potential in a time window from 350-700 ms compared to those perceived as safe. These data suggest that impressions about HIV risk can be formed in a split second and despite a lack of information about the actual risk profile. Findings of neural correlates of risk impressions and their relationship to key features of the HIV risk stereotype are discussed in the context of the 'risk as feelings' theory.},
    publisher = {Public Library of Science}
    }
  • [PDF] Schmälzle, R., Renner, B., & Schupp, H. T.. (2012). Neural correlates of perceived risk: the case of HIV. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(6), 667–676.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzle2012neural,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Renner, Britta and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {Neural correlates of perceived risk: the case of HIV},
    journal = {Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience},
    year = {2012},
    volume = {7},
    number = {6},
    pages = {667--676},
    abstract = {Research indicates that many people do not use condoms consistently but rather rely on illusory control strategies for avoiding an infection with HIV. Preliminary evidence suggests that people form impressions of a partner's HIV risk based on his or her physical appearance. To examine the neural correlates of such appearance-based HIV risk impressions, event-related potentials were recorded while participants viewed portraits of unacquainted persons. Participants' explicit HIV risk ratings for each of the presented unacquainted persons were used to form categories of low and high HIV risk persons. Results showed that risky, compared to safe persons elicited distinct event-related potential (ERP) modulations. Viewing risky persons was associated with an increased positivity over right frontal regions between 180 and 240 ms. This suggests that impressions related to HIV risk occur rapidly, presumably reflecting automatic person evaluations eluding introspection. In a time window between 450 and 600 ms, risky persons elicited an increased late positive potential. Consistent with previous findings reporting augmented late positive potentials (LPP) amplitudes to affectively significant stimuli, the results support the assumption that risky faces draw more attention resources. These findings are in accordance with the 'risk as feeling' notion.},
    publisher = {Oxford University Press}
    }
  • [PDF] Schmälzle, R., Schupp, H. T., Barth, A., & Renner, B.. (2011). Implicit and explicit processes in risk perception: neural antecedents of perceived HIV risk. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 5(1), 1.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzle2011implicit,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Schupp, Harald T and Barth, Alexander and Renner, Britta},
    title = {Implicit and explicit processes in risk perception: neural antecedents of perceived HIV risk},
    journal = {Frontiers in Human Neuroscience},
    year = {2011},
    volume = {5},
    number = {1},
    pages = {1},
    abstract = {Field studies on HIV risk suggest that people may rely on impressions they have about the safety of their partner at the dispense of more objective risk protection strategies. In this study, ERP recordings were used to investigate the brain mechanisms that give rise to such impressions. First, in an implicit condition, participants viewed a series of photographs of unacquainted persons while performing a task that did not mention HIV risk. Second, in an explicit condition, participants estimated the HIV risk for each presented person. Dense sensor EEG was recorded during the implicit and explicit conditions. In the analysis, explicit risk ratings were used to categorize ERP data from the implicit and explicit conditions into low and high HIV risk categories. The results reveal implicit ERP differences on the basis of subsequent ratings of HIV risk. Specifically, the processing of risky individuals was associated with an early occipital negativity (240-300 ms) and a subsequent central positivity between 430 and 530 ms compared to safe. A similar ERP modulation emerged in the explicit condition for the central positivity component between 430 and 530 ms. A subsequent late positive potential component between 550 and 800 ms was specifically enhanced for risky persons in the explicit rating condition while not modulated in the implicit condition. Furthermore, ratings of HIV risk correlated substantially with ratings of trustworthiness and responsibility. Taken together, these observations provide evidence for theories of intuitive risk perception, which, in the case of HIV risk, seem to operate via appearance-based stereotypic inferences.},
    publisher = {Frontiers Media SA}
    }
Affective Neuroscience: Your brain on pleasure and pain

In addition to my efforts at the intersection between health communication, psychology and affective neuroscience, I do basic research on the neural mechanisms of emotion and motivation. In particular, I focus on the rapid and largely unconscious mechanisms of emotional perception/motivated attention. I have been involved in numerous studies aiming ;to understand the nature and  functional significance of early differential brain reactions towards ;emotional stimuli, which are reflected in the EPN (early posterior negativity) and LPP (late positive potential) ERP components. Emotion and motivation obviously play a critical role in health and thus this basic science research provides a good foundation for more translational work.

  • [DOI] Schmälzle, R., & Grall, C.. (inpress). The coupled brains of captivated audiences: An investigation of the collective brain dynamics of an audience watching a suspenseful film. Journal of Media Psychology.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzlegrall2019coupled,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Grall, Clare},
    title = {The coupled brains of captivated audiences: An investigation of the collective brain dynamics of an audience watching a suspenseful film},
    journal = {Journal of Media Psychology},
    year = {inpress},
    abstract = {Suspense not only creates a strong psychological tension within individuals, but it does so reliably across viewers who become collectively engaged with the story. Despite its prevalence in media psychology, limited work has examined suspense from a media neuroscience perspective, and thus the biological underpinnings of suspense remain unknown. Here we examine continuous brain responses of 494 viewers watching a suspenseful movie. To create a time-resolved measure of the degree to which a movie aligns audience-wide brain responses, we computed dynamic inter-subject correlations of fMRI time series among all viewers using sliding-window analysis. In parallel, we captured in-the-moment reports of suspense in an independent sample via continuous response measurement (CRM). We find that dynamic ISC over the course of the movie tracks well with the reported suspense in the CRM sample, particularly in regions associated with emotional salience and higher cognitive processes. These results are compatible with theoretical views on motivated attention and psychological tension. The finding that fMRI-based audience response measurement relates to audience reports of suspense creates new opportunities for research on the mechanisms of suspense and other entertainment phenomena and has applied potential for measuring audience responses in a nonreactive and objective fashion.},
    doi = {http://dx.doi.org/todo},
    editor = {todo}
    }
  • [PDF] Schupp, H. T., Kirmse, U., Schmälzle, R., Flaisch, T., & Renner, B.. (2016). Newly-formed emotional memories guide selective attention processes: Evidence from event-related potentials.. Scientific Reports, 6, 28091.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schupp2016newly,
    author = {Schupp, Harald T and Kirmse, Ursula and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Flaisch, Tobias and Renner, Britta},
    title = {Newly-formed emotional memories guide selective attention processes: Evidence from event-related potentials.},
    journal = {Scientific Reports},
    year = {2016},
    volume = {6},
    pages = {28091},
    month = {Jun},
    abstract = {Emotional cues can guide selective attention processes. However, emotional stimuli can both activate long-term memory representations reflecting general world knowledge and engage newly formed memory representations representing specific knowledge from the immediate past. Here, the self-completion feature of associative memory was utilized to assess the regulation of attention processes by newly-formed emotional memory. First, new memory representations were formed by presenting pictures depicting a person either in an erotic pose or as a portrait. Afterwards, to activate newly-built memory traces, edited pictures were presented showing only the head region of the person. ERP recordings revealed the emotional regulation of attention by newly-formed memories. Specifically, edited pictures from the erotic compared to the portrait category elicited an early posterior negativity and late positive potential, similar to the findings observed for the original pictures. A control condition showed that the effect was dependent on newly-formed memory traces. Given the large number of new memories formed each day, they presumably make an important contribution to the regulation of attention in everyday life.},
    address = {England},
    issn = {2045-2322 (Linking)}
    }
  • [PDF] Schupp, H. T., Schmälzle, R., & Flaisch, T.. (2014). Explicit semantic stimulus categorization interferes with implicit emotion processing. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9, 1738–1745.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schupp2014explicit,
    author = {Schupp, Harald T and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Flaisch, Tobias},
    title = {Explicit semantic stimulus categorization interferes with implicit emotion processing},
    journal = {Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience},
    year = {2014},
    volume = {9},
    pages = {1738--1745},
    abstract = {Previous fMRI- and ERP- studies revealed that performing a cognitive task may suppress the preferential processing of emotional stimuli. However, these studies utilized artificial tasks lacking meaningfulness, familiarity, and ecological validity. The present event-related potential study examined the emotion-attention interaction in the context of scene categorization by asking participants to indicate whether an image contained an animal or not. The task images were presented centrally and were overlaid upon emotional or neutral background pictures. In a control condition, participants passively viewed the same stimulus materials without the demand to categorize task images. Significant interactions between task condition and emotional picture valence were observed for the occipital negativity and late positive potential. In the passive viewing condition, emotional background images elicited an increased occipital negativity followed by an increased late positive potential. In contrast, during the animal-/non-animal-categorization task, emotional modulation effects were replaced by strong target categorization effects. These results suggest that explicit semantic categorization interferes with implicit emotion processing when both processes compete for shared resources.},
    publisher = {Oxford University Press}
    }
  • [PDF] Schupp, H. T., Schmälzle, R., Flaisch, T., Weike, A. I., & Hamm, A. O.. (2012). Affective picture processing as a function of preceding picture valence: An ERP analysis. Biological Psychology, 91(1), 81-87.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schupp2012affective,
    author = {Schupp, Harald T and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Flaisch, Tobias and Weike, Almut I and Hamm, Alfons O},
    title = {Affective picture processing as a function of preceding picture valence: An ERP analysis},
    journal = {Biological Psychology},
    year = {2012},
    volume = {91},
    number = {1},
    pages = {81-87},
    abstract = {Event-related brain potential (ERP) studies consistently revealed that a relatively early (early posterior negativity; EPN) and a late (late positive potential; LPP) ERP component differentiate between emotional and neutral picture stimuli. Two studies examined the processing of emotional stimuli when preceded either by pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant context images. In both studies, distinct streams of six pictures were shown. In Study 1, hedonic context was alternated randomly across the 180 picture streams. In Study 2, hedonic context sequences were blocked, resulting in 60 preceding sequences of pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant context valence, respectively. The main finding was that the valence of the preceding picture sequence had no significant effect on the emotional modulation of the EPN and LPP components. However, previous results were replicated in that emotional stimulus processing was associated with larger EPN and LPP components as compared to neutral pictures. These findings suggest that the prioritized processing of emotional stimuli is primarily driven by the valence of the current picture.},
    publisher = {Elsevier}
    }
  • [PDF] Stockburger, J., Schmälzle, R., Flaisch, T., Bublatzky, F., & Schupp, H. T.. (2009). The impact of hunger on food cue processing: an event-related brain potential study. Neuroimage, 47(4), 1819–1829.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{stockburger2009impact,
    author = {Stockburger, Jessica and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Flaisch, Tobias and Bublatzky, Florian and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {The impact of hunger on food cue processing: an event-related brain potential study},
    journal = {Neuroimage},
    year = {2009},
    volume = {47},
    number = {4},
    pages = {1819--1829},
    abstract = {The present study used event-related brain potentials to examine deprivation effects on visual attention to food stimuli at the level of distinct processing stages. Thirty-two healthy volunteers (16 females) were tested twice 1 week apart, either after 24 h of food deprivation or after normal food intake. Participants viewed a continuous stream of food and flower images while dense sensor ERPs were recorded. As revealed by distinct ERP modulations in relatively earlier and later time windows, deprivation affected the processing of food and flower pictures. Between 300 and 360 ms, food pictures were associated with enlarged occipito-temporal negativity and centro-parietal positivity in deprived compared to satiated state. Of main interest, in a later time window (450-600 ms), deprivation increased amplitudes of the late positive potential elicited by food pictures. Conversely, flower processing varied by motivational state with decreased positive potentials in the deprived state. Minimum-Norm analyses provided further evidence that deprivation enhanced visual attention to food cues in later processing stages. From the perspective of motivated attention, hunger may induce a heightened state of attention for food stimuli in a processing stage related to stimulus recognition and focused attention.},
    publisher = {Academic Press}
    }
  • [PDF] Schupp, H. T., Stockburger, J., Schmälzle, R., Bublatzky, F., Weike, A. I., & Hamm, A. O.. (2008). Visual noise effects on emotion perception: brain potentials and stimulus identification. Neuroreport, 19(2), 167–171.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schupp2008visual,
    author = {Schupp, Harald T and Stockburger, Jessica and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Bublatzky, Florian and Weike, Almut I and Hamm, Alfons O},
    title = {Visual noise effects on emotion perception: brain potentials and stimulus identification},
    journal = {Neuroreport},
    year = {2008},
    volume = {19},
    number = {2},
    pages = {167--171},
    abstract = {Event-related potential (ERP) studies revealed an early posterior negativity (EPN) for emotionally arousing pictures. Two studies explored how this effect relates to perceptual stimulus characteristics and stimulus identification. Adding various amounts of visual noise varied stimulus perceptibility of high and low arousing picture contents, which were presented as rapid and continuous stream. Measuring dense sensor event-related potentials, study I determined that noise level was linearly related to the P1 peak. Subsequently, enlarged EPNs to emotionally arousing contents were observed, however, only for pictures containing low amounts of noise, which also enabled stimulus identification as shown by study II. These data support the notion that the EPN may serve as a measure of affective stimulus evaluation at an early transitory processing period.},
    publisher = {LWW}
    }
Keep it real: Authentic research & applicable science

I strive to do research that is both scientifically productive and practically relevant.
Together with Harald Schupp and Britta Renner (both U Konstanz, Germany) we conceived several new paradigms to examine the neural underpinnings of health risk perception using high-density ERP and fMRI methods.
At the Communication Neuroscience Lab (U Penn, PI Emily Falk) I’ve been working with people with diverse backgrounds, such as health and mass communication, social neuroscience, natural language processing, and political science – to name but a few- who all really cared about linking neural data to real-world outcomes. While at Penn, I was also affiliated with the Complex Systems Lab (PI Danielle Bassett) and have been exposed to cutting-edge work on graph theory and brain networks.
In terms of analytical tools, my current work makes heavy use of the inter-subject correlation (ISC) approach to neural data analysis. ISC allows studying dynamic neural processes under maximally ecological circumstances and with a focus on reliability of such processes across or within participants. I learned the ropes of this amazing technique during a stint in Uri Hassons lab at Princeton. Ever since then, I was convinced that it is time to unleash the potential of this method for creating a new substantive science at the intersection of health communication and social neuroscience.

  • [DOI] Schmälzle, R., & Grall, C.. (inpress). Psychophysiological Methods: Options, Uses, and Validity. In. VanDenBulck: The International Encyclopedia of Media Psychology, todo.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzle2019psychophysiological,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Grall, Clare},
    title = {Psychophysiological Methods: Options, Uses, and Validity},
    journal = {In. VanDenBulck: The International Encyclopedia of Media Psychology},
    year = {inpress},
    pages = {todo},
    abstract = {A comprehensive understanding of media's rich effects on the mind requires a multi-modal measurement approach that assesses self-report, physiology, and behavior that values each domain - on equal footing. Psychophysiology provides theories and measures to study how media affect objective physiological responses and how physiological responses interact with media variables.},
    doi = {http://dx.doi.org/todo},
    editor = {todo}
    }
  • [DOI] Schmälzle, R., & Grall, C.. (inpress). Mediated Messages and Synchronized Brains. In. Floyd & Weber: Handbook of Communication Science and Biology, todo.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzle2020handbookisc,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Grall, Clare},
    title = {Mediated Messages and Synchronized Brains},
    journal = {In. Floyd \& Weber: Handbook of Communication Science and Biology},
    year = {inpress},
    pages = {todo},
    abstract = {When a mediated message is processed by different recipients, it prompts similar responses in separate brains. These hidden, but collectively shared brain responses can be exposed by computing cross-recipient correlations of brain activity time series, called inter-subject correlation (ISC) analysis. Here we provide an overview of this approach, review its findings to date, and discuss why it is highly relevant for communication science.},
    doi = {http://dx.doi.org/todo},
    editor = {todo}
    }
  • [PDF] [DOI] Imhof, M. A., Schmälzle, R., Renner, B., & Schupp, H. T.. (2017). How real-life health messages engage our brains: Shared processing of effective anti-alcohol videos.. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, 12(7), 1188-1196.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{imhof2017how,
    author = {Imhof, Martin A and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Renner, Britta and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {How real-life health messages engage our brains: Shared processing of effective anti-alcohol videos.},
    journal = {Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience},
    year = {2017},
    volume = {12},
    number = {7},
    pages = {1188-1196},
    month = {Apr},
    abstract = {Health communication via mass media is an important strategy when targeting risky drinking, but many questions remain about how health messages are processed and how they unfold their effects within receivers. Here we examine how the brains of young adults - a key target group for alcohol prevention - 'tune in' to real-life health prevention messages about risky alcohol use. In a first study, a large sample of authentic public service announcements (PSAs) targeting the risks of alcohol was characterized using established measures of message effectiveness. In the main study, we used inter-subject correlation analysis of fMRI data to examine brain responses to more and less effective PSAs in a sample of young adults. We find that more effective messages command more similar responses within widespread brain regions, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, insulae, and precuneus. In previous research these regions have been related to narrative engagement, self-relevance, and attention towards salient stimuli. The present study thus suggests that more effective health prevention messages have greater 'neural reach', i.e. they engage the brains of audience members' more widely. This work outlines a promising strategy for assessing the effects of health communication at a neural level.},
    address = {England},
    doi = {http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsx044},
    issn = {1749-5016 (Linking)},
    keywords = {alcohol, fMRI, health communication, inter-subject correlation, public service announcements, self}
    }
  • [PDF] Schmälzle, R., Häcker, F., Honey Christopher J, & Hasson, U.. (2015). Engaged Listeners: Shared neural processing of powerful political speeches. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neurosciences, 1, 168-169.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzle2015engaged,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and H{\"a}cker, Frank and Honey, Christopher J, and Hasson, U},
    title = {Engaged Listeners: Shared neural processing of powerful political speeches},
    journal = {Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neurosciences},
    year = {2015},
    volume = {1},
    pages = {168-169},
    abstract = {Powerful speeches can captivate audiences, while weaker speeches fail to engage their listeners. What is happening in the brains of a captivated audience? Here we assess audience-wide functional brain dynamics during listening to speeches of varying rhetorical quality. The speeches were given by German politicians and evaluated as rhetorically powerful or weak. Listening to each of the speeches induced similar neural response time courses, as measured by inter-subject correlation analysis, in widespread brain regions involved in spoken language processing. Crucially, alignment of the time course across listeners was stronger for rhetorically powerful speeches, especially for bilateral regions of the superior temporal gyri and medial prefrontal cortex. Thus, during powerful speeches, listeners as a group are more coupled to each other, suggesting that powerful speeches are more potent in taking control of the listeners' brain responses. Weaker speeches were processed more heterogeneously, although they still prompted substantially correlated responses. These patterns of coupled neural responses bear resemblance to metaphors of resonance, which are often invoked in discussions of speech impact, and contribute to the literature on auditory attention under natural circumstances. Overall, this approach opens up possibilities for research on the neural mechanisms mediating the reception of entertaining or persuasive messages.}
    }
  • [PDF] Schmälzle, R., Häcker, F., Renner, B., Honey, C. J., & Schupp, H. T.. (2013). Neural correlates of risk perception during real-life risk communication. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(25), 10340–10347.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzle2013neural,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and H{\"a}cker, Frank and Renner, Britta and Honey, Christopher J and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {Neural correlates of risk perception during real-life risk communication},
    journal = {The Journal of Neuroscience},
    year = {2013},
    volume = {33},
    number = {25},
    pages = {10340--10347},
    abstract = {During global health crises, such as the recent H1N1 pandemic, the mass media provide the public with timely information regarding risk. To obtain new insights into how these messages are received, we measured neural data while participants, who differed in their preexisting H1N1 risk perceptions, viewed a TV report about H1N1. Intersubject correlation (ISC) of neural time courses was used to assess how similarly the brains of viewers responded to the TV report. We found enhanced intersubject correlations among viewers with high-risk perception in the anterior cingulate, a region which classical fMRI studies associated with the appraisal of threatening information. By contrast, neural coupling in sensory-perceptual regions was similar for the high and low H1N1-risk perception groups. These results demonstrate a novel methodology for understanding how real-life health messages are processed in the human brain, with particular emphasis on the role of emotion and differences in risk perceptions.},
    key = {JoN},
    publisher = {Soc Neuroscience}
    }
  • [PDF] Schmälzle, R., Schupp, H. T., Barth, A., & Renner, B.. (2011). Implicit and explicit processes in risk perception: neural antecedents of perceived HIV risk. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 5(1), 1.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{schmaelzle2011implicit,
    author = {Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Schupp, Harald T and Barth, Alexander and Renner, Britta},
    title = {Implicit and explicit processes in risk perception: neural antecedents of perceived HIV risk},
    journal = {Frontiers in Human Neuroscience},
    year = {2011},
    volume = {5},
    number = {1},
    pages = {1},
    abstract = {Field studies on HIV risk suggest that people may rely on impressions they have about the safety of their partner at the dispense of more objective risk protection strategies. In this study, ERP recordings were used to investigate the brain mechanisms that give rise to such impressions. First, in an implicit condition, participants viewed a series of photographs of unacquainted persons while performing a task that did not mention HIV risk. Second, in an explicit condition, participants estimated the HIV risk for each presented person. Dense sensor EEG was recorded during the implicit and explicit conditions. In the analysis, explicit risk ratings were used to categorize ERP data from the implicit and explicit conditions into low and high HIV risk categories. The results reveal implicit ERP differences on the basis of subsequent ratings of HIV risk. Specifically, the processing of risky individuals was associated with an early occipital negativity (240-300 ms) and a subsequent central positivity between 430 and 530 ms compared to safe. A similar ERP modulation emerged in the explicit condition for the central positivity component between 430 and 530 ms. A subsequent late positive potential component between 550 and 800 ms was specifically enhanced for risky persons in the explicit rating condition while not modulated in the implicit condition. Furthermore, ratings of HIV risk correlated substantially with ratings of trustworthiness and responsibility. Taken together, these observations provide evidence for theories of intuitive risk perception, which, in the case of HIV risk, seem to operate via appearance-based stereotypic inferences.},
    publisher = {Frontiers Media SA}
    }
Sneak Peek

Do you think we could have predicted from your brain activity whether you’d open this field? Indeed, this is increasingly possible and the lab in which I did a PostDoc is known for advancing this ‘brain-as-predictor’ approach (read more e.g. here). I am currently working on combining inter-subject correlation and related neuroimaging methods with this approach.

The following video illustrates the audience-wide brain response to a health prevention message from a recent BzGA-campaign on risky drinking (the BzGA is roughly the German equivalent of the CDC). What you can see is that the message evokes similar spatio-temporal brain activity patterns (the left and right brain represent group averages of fMRI activity from ca. 10 viewers).

Our results suggest that this approach can be used to derive markers of communication success. In other words, if the message had not been received by the brains of individual reviewers, they would not exhibit these similar spatiotemporal responses but idle along at their own pace. However, the fact that the message aligns the brains of multiple recipients in a similar fashion demonstrates that it must have arrived in their brains. My lab at MSU connects these shared audience responses to what I call micro-level media effects and to campaign success at larger scales.

  • [PDF] [DOI] Imhof, M. A., Schmälzle, R., Renner, B., & Schupp, H. T.. (2017). How real-life health messages engage our brains: Shared processing of effective anti-alcohol videos.. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, 12(7), 1188-1196.
    [Bibtex]
    @Article{imhof2017how,
    author = {Imhof, Martin A and Schm{\"a}lzle, Ralf and Renner, Britta and Schupp, Harald T},
    title = {How real-life health messages engage our brains: Shared processing of effective anti-alcohol videos.},
    journal = {Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience},
    year = {2017},
    volume = {12},
    number = {7},
    pages = {1188-1196},
    month = {Apr},
    abstract = {Health communication via mass media is an important strategy when targeting risky drinking, but many questions remain about how health messages are processed and how they unfold their effects within receivers. Here we examine how the brains of young adults - a key target group for alcohol prevention - 'tune in' to real-life health prevention messages about risky alcohol use. In a first study, a large sample of authentic public service announcements (PSAs) targeting the risks of alcohol was characterized using established measures of message effectiveness. In the main study, we used inter-subject correlation analysis of fMRI data to examine brain responses to more and less effective PSAs in a sample of young adults. We find that more effective messages command more similar responses within widespread brain regions, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, insulae, and precuneus. In previous research these regions have been related to narrative engagement, self-relevance, and attention towards salient stimuli. The present study thus suggests that more effective health prevention messages have greater 'neural reach', i.e. they engage the brains of audience members' more widely. This work outlines a promising strategy for assessing the effects of health communication at a neural level.},
    address = {England},
    doi = {http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsx044},
    issn = {1749-5016 (Linking)},
    keywords = {alcohol, fMRI, health communication, inter-subject correlation, public service announcements, self}
    }

PuzzleBrain