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Neuroimaging of pain and desire: New frontiers in understanding human motivation




FEBRUARY 11, 2022

Tor Wager, PhD
Diana L. Taylor Distinguished Professor
Presidential Cluster in Neuroscience and 
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
Dartmouth College
Director, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab
Director, Dartmouth Brain Imaging Center
Director, Dartmouth Center for Cognitive Neuroscience

About the Presentation: Aversive and appetitive processes are the primary drivers of human motivation and behavior. Our brains are organized around predicting and avoiding pain, and predicting and pursuing rewards. Their experience defines our wellbeing, and the brain processes that underlie them drive learning and neuroplasticity.  Developing models of the brain circuits that underlie them, and how they interact, could transform how we understand and measure them, and provide biological targets for interventions ranging from drugs to psychotherapy. In this talk, I describe a series of studies that combine fMRI imaging with pattern recognition to develop measures that are sensitive and specific for particular types of appetitive and aversive processes, including pain, empathy, sexual desire, and craving for food and drugs. These studies provide a brain-based picture of the organization of pain and affect, revealing both distinctions and similarities that are not predicted by folk psychological theories. I explore some ways in which these brain measures can be combined with studies of health behaviors and substance use to foster new collaborative studies.

About the Presenter:  Tor Wager is the Diana L. Taylor Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience at Dartmouth College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in Cognitive Psychology in 2003, and served as an Assistant (2004-2008) and Associate Professor (2009) at Columbia University, and as Associate (2010-2014) and Full Professor (2014-2019) at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Since 2004, he has directed the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience laboratory, a research lab devoted to work on the neurophysiology of affective processes—pain, emotion, stress, and empathy—and how they are shaped by cognitive and social influences. Dr. Wager and his lab are also dedicated to developing analysis methods for functional neuroimaging and sharing ideas, tools, and scientific data with the scientific community and public. His full CV is linked here. See and for papers, data, tools, and code.