Mauricio Papini: Looking for the Link

The psychology professor says addiction, pain and frustration have something in common.

Mauricio Papini: Looking for the Link

The psychology professor says addiction, pain and frustration have something in common.

To discover how unmet expectations affect the brain, Papini collaborated with psychologists in Spain to reveal aspects of addiction, frustration and the power of negative thinking.

Your research centers on behavioral neuroscience. How do you explain what you do to nonscientists?

I’m interested in brain-behavior relations in particular. Brain processes control a number of things, including physiological responses: your heart, your perspiration, etc. But they also control behavior. They control psychological processes: mental functioning, emotions, learning, memory and personality.

Mauricio Papini, psychology professor at TCU, studies reward loss. Photo by Glen E. Ellman

Mauricio Papini, psychology professor at TCU, studies reward loss and response in animals. Photo by Glen E. Ellman

Neuroscience involves understanding how the brain does all these things. And it is extremely complex. I usually say to my students that the universe is a piece of cake compared to the brain of a mammal. It’s going to take us a few centuries to figure out how it works.

Most of your studies revolve around pain, frustration and addiction. How do these experiences intersect?

I’m interested in episodes involving loss — when a lab animal learns to anticipate something good, and then that something completely fails to appear or is diminished. One way to refer to that is reward loss. You teach the animal to expect certain things, and you reduce the quality or the quantity of that incentive, and then you have a response.

It turns out the response shares similarities with physical pain. For example, if you damage your skin and you’re in pain, you have a response in the brain that compensates for that pain involving opioids and cannabinoids. And when you lose a reward, you have the same response. We started to refer to this reward loss as psychological pain. Episodes of loss, psychological pain and frustration are at the root of a variety of psychopathologies, from general anxiety disorder to phobias to post-traumatic stress disorder and to depressions.

Another thing we’re exploring now is the phenomenon of substance-use disorders. We find that when our animals are subjected to episodes of loss, if we give them the opportunity to drink alcohol, they will engage in that behavior. They will prefer alcohol to water, especially when they are under the influence of this frustrated emotion. We think that this could illuminate how some addictions start.

You published a recent study with Carmen Torres of Spain’s Universidad de Jaén on why people self-medicate. What were your findings?

The prevailing theory today is that people start drinking or using drugs because of the pleasure that they give. When a person becomes addicted, then the drug induces a motivational state that’s completely novel and that requires drug intake to maintain. If the person runs out of the drug, then he suffers a withdrawal state that’s extremely aversive and that can only be reversed by taking the drug.

We’re arguing that at the start of an addiction, the drug is important to reduce the negative effect that occurs for a variety of reasons, whether because you experience a negative, traumatic event, or because of social phobia or uncomfortable situation that alcohol or drugs might help you resolve. We think that psychological pain might be at the root of not only how an addiction or addictive behavior is maintained, but also how it is initiated. We’re testing that theory.

Your projects study reward loss and subsequent behaviors in animals. Are you confident that these results can be applied to humans?

Absolutely. The brain of a rat and the brain of a human … basically have the same components. You can track, area by area, the neurons that are located in parts of the brain. They are technically called homologous, meaning that they come from common ancestors.

Now, human brains are going to have a lot of other stuff, so this research will not be sufficient to understand the entire human dimension, so an animal model of a human disorder is always partial. But it should be sufficient to understand some aspect that could be critical to come up with ideas for treatments or ways in which you can deal with a problem.

Do you have any thoughts on how people can mitigate their reactions to frustration?

I am concerned about this notion of positive thinking — this popular idea that you have to be positive in life. If you’re extremely positive, and unreasonably so, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration.

I think we should be positive about things that we can control completely. I think it’s unreasonable to be positive about things we cannot control. I think you have to be realistic about it because you could set yourself up for a great disappointment. And that would be devastating.

Professor Mauricio Papini discusses the complexity of brain-behavior relations. Photo by Glen E. Ellman

Professor Mauricio Papini, who grew up and completed his education in Argentina, discusses the complexity of brain-behavior relations. Photo by Glen E. Ellman

The first prescription for minimizing the impact of reward loss on your life is to have realistic expectations of what can happen. This is nothing new. Ancient philosophers say that. You should wake up every morning and think about all the things that could happen to you, good or bad, but particularly the bad things, the things that might prevent you from achieving your goals. The theory behind that is if you have thought about it and then it actually happens to you, the impact will be reduced because you had already anticipated it. It won’t be a surprise.

How do you approach the process of communicating your research findings?

This is the most difficult skill for a scientist — to write. Scientific writing has to be extremely simple, not redundant but complete. There’s a tension between not leaving anything out but communicating everything in the simplest possible way.

Somebody who reads the paper and becomes interested in the research has to be able to replicate your experiment just with the information that you have provided in the paper. So, you have to be exhaustive, but at the same time, not redundant. It’s a difficult skill to acquire, and it takes years.

I spend most of my day either analyzing data or writing papers. When I have that feeling of “What is the data really telling me?” it doesn’t go away. It sticks with me until I resolve it. If it happens to be a Friday, tough, I’m going to take my computer home.

How do you entice your students to do research?

It’s very hard to get students to be passionate, to at least express a passion for knowledge. And I don’t think you can teach that. When it comes to interest and passion and motivation for knowledge, I don’t think you can tell them you will be motivated, and you will do it. I do think that if you have the ability to show them what you’re passionate about, they might get something out of it by just watching.

I think we all underestimate motivation, and we overestimate intelligence. I don’t think intelligence is that important. It is important, of course, but the most important thing to have is a clear understanding of what you want to do. And the motivation to do it.

You grew up and completed your education in Argentina. Do you think higher education is different there?

Argentina has a traditionally high level of education. And it used to be even better. But it’s extremely formal. Here it’s more informal, so I like that better. What I like about universities in this country is the campus life. You’re not just you in your office. You’re in a community. When I was a student in Buenos Aires, all of the university’s departments were spread across the city. We had about seven campuses, but none of them were like a U.S. university campus.

— Caroline Collier

Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.