CCIS Student combines Computer Science and Biology to explain the science behind your “hangry” mood

July 30, 2018

By Christian Stafford

Have you ever felt “hangry” before and wondered how your emotions were interacting with each other? A term used to describe anger that is caused by hunger, “hanger” is just one of many examples of “emotional combination” being studied by Akira Watanabe, a third-year computer science and biology major at Northeastern University.

Watanabe showcased his research in his RISE: 2018 presentation, “How Does the Brain Process Combination Concepts,” exploring how humans can learn new emotions, such as hanger, through “conceptual combination.”

“Conceptual combination is when people learn new concepts by combining two concepts they already know,” said Watanabe. For example, hunger plus anger equals hanger. “What we’re trying to do is to see if this process for acquiring new emotional concepts can be facilitated through language,” he said.

Participants in the study are given a language training task to complete and Watanabe and his team then check to see whether or not emotional combination properly took place and if the process was facilitated.

The research team uses an electroencephalogram machine to check for evidence of emotional combination taking place in the minds of the research participants. According to Watanabe, the machine, “records superficial brain activity called ERPs (Event-Related Potential).” ERPs are physiologically correlated with brain activity, and they are often recorded as a marker to see if the process of interest took place, he said. In the case of Watanabe’s research, he said he is interested in the “N400 response,” which occurs when a person is confused. “If someone sees something they didn’t expect or tries to understand something they’ve never been exposed to before, you’ll see an N400 response,” said Watanabe.

Watanabe and his team are currently in their data collection phase. He said that once they collect the necessary data, they will then conduct data analysis and visualization through MATLAB.

A former behavioral neuroscience major, Watanabe spent his last co-op as the Electroencephalography (EEG) Coordinator at Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory. He said his responsibilities ranged anywhere from running participants for data collection, to stimulus development, troubleshooting MATLAB and other various functions.   

Watanabe said that CCIS has helped to make him feel more useful and resourceful when it comes to conducting research. “It’s helped me find the career path that I feel like I can contribute to the most and have confidence about. Computer science is becoming much more relevant in every field and discipline,” he said, adding that he hopes to one day apply the skills and knowledge he has learned in computer science to his research, perhaps in computational biology or computational neuroscience.