Interview With Peter Lang
How did you get started in psychophysiology?
In my first "big"
grant application to NIMH (submitted while at the University of Pittsburgh)
I proposed to evaluate a then new and highly controversial method for
treating phobia, "Systematic Desensitization". In that era, psychodynamic therapies dominated in both
psychiatry and psychology. Moreover,
the idea of a treatment based on learning principles (i.e., conditioning)
was considered to be radical and suspect by the clinical community. If such a treatment were to be implemented, many believed, it
would actually be counter-therapeutic.
Thus, one of the primary questions raised at initial review of our
application was-- "How are you going to assess fear change?"
The question's underlying agenda was the Freudian theory of
"symptom substitution". In
this view, a phobia isn't just a phobia, but an outward expression of some
deeper problem, hidden in the unconscious (see S. Freud, "Little
Hans"). Furthermore, it
was believed that, although a phobia might be reduced in severity by
superficial treatments, the unconscious problem would remain, and inevitably
some new external symptom, equally or even more distressing, would emerge.
The review committee's question had, of course, even wider
implications. We were being
asked to propose a substantive, operational definition of "fear"
that could be used in the functional assessment of human beings.
Part of our answer to the committee was that the data base of
"fear" (perhaps, of any emotion) includes three response domains:
1) language behavior, expressive and evaluative; 2) behavioral acts,
as escape, avoidance or deficits in performance in the context of a
"fear" object; 3) physiological reactions, as changes in heart
rate, skin conductance, muscle tension, etc.
We said that we would sample responses in all domains, and that
successful treatment would be shown if there were significant and persistent
changes in all three systems.
At the time, I felt reasonably confident that we could develop reliable measures of fear-relevant verbal report and of overt behavior. Assessing the physiology of "fear" was, however, a promissory note to the committee. I had no background at all in physiological measurement. In point of fact, the field of psychophysiology was only then being born. That same year, a few interested scientists had their first formal meeting as the Society for Psychophysiological Research. There was not yet a journal called "Psychophysiology", and there was no formal graduate school training in psychophysiology to be had anywhere. (The only possible exception that I can think of was Indiana University, where R.C. Davis and his students were measuring heart rate (R-R intervals) with a millimeter ruler, and producing research that's still worth looking at).
was influential in your development as a psychophysiologist?
As things turned out NIMH
accepted our promissory note along with the rest of the proposal.
The funds were awarded, and we had to come through on our wager.
I was wholly naive and assumed (hoped?) that somebody else had worked
out all the details of measuring emotion physiologically.
A little reading, however, soon persuaded me otherwise. I was aghast. Emotion's
physiology was immensely complicated and furthermore, many foundational
experiments, manipulating simpler stimuli, that should precede a direct
attack on emotion, had yet to be done, e.g., assessing the effects of
stimulus modality, intensity, repetition over trials, and other basic
variables. Rather than
measuring emotion in therapy, I soon found myself measuring heart rate in
response to simple tones, using Davis's ruler method.
I also continued reading and a name kept coming up in my lucubrations,
John Lacey, whose laboratory at the Fels institute in Ohio was a relatively
short drive away. I wrote to
John, visited with him and his wife and colleague, Bea Lacey, and had an
opportunity to see how a productive laboratory could be run.
John became a good friend, and an advisor and supporter in my
psychophysiological research efforts (I have always suspected-- but never
confirmed-- that before we met, he had been active on the review committee
that gave me that first "big" grant award).
Unfortunately, as an assistant professor, my commitments at
Pittsburgh were heavy and I was never able to do more than briefly visit
John's laboratory. Thus, in the early work, I spent a lot of time pulling on my
was the most valuable thing you learned from him?
I would recommend that all
psychophysiology students read John's book chapter, "Psychophysiological
approaches to the evaluation of psychotherapeutic process and outcome"
In "Research in Psychotherapy" [Eds. Rubinstein and Parloff].
National Publishing Co: Washington, D.C, 1959.
There is almost nothing in it directly relevant to the title, but
much of value on the psychological relevance—opportunities and pitfalls--
of physiological measurement. It
was for me an important guide, a distillation of problems, concepts and
principles of psychophysiological research that is still an enormously
useful read for young investigators.
seems worth mentioning that you mentored a number of prominent
psychophysiologists, many who are active members of SPR. This list includes,
as graduate students, Ed Cook, Bruce Cuthbert, James Geer, Linda Gannon, Bob
Gatchel, Raphael Klorman, Michale Kozak, Barbara Melamed, Greg Miller, Alan
Shroufe, Bob Simons, and Scott Vrana, and as post-docs, e.g. Margaret
Öhman, and Chris Patrick.
What is your approach to mentoring?
How do you view this process?
I have always agreed with an answer, said to have been given by
"Bear" Bryant when a similar question was posed to him: The
"Bear" was asked how he had coached Alabama to so many football
victories. He said, simply,
"It's all in the recruiting."
I had (and continue to have) the enormous good fortune to work with
students of unusually high intellect and competence.
I cherish many close, sustained friendships with former students who
are now my colleagues (and who honor the mentor's training by exceeding his
was your psychophysiological experience at Wisconsin like?
How does that compare to your current experience at the Center for
the Study of Emotion and Attention?
Francis Graham and I
arrived at Wisconsin at almost the same time.
As a tag-team, we taught what was one of the first courses in
psychophysiology ever offered at a major University, and together we formed
a mini area group training graduate students in psychophysiological
research. I greatly enjoyed working with the students there.
If asked then what was my primary aim as a professor, I answered that
I proposed to train cadre that would instruct the next generation of
Since moving to Florida I have been less involved in formal teaching
and spend much more time in the laboratory.
The ratio of post-docs to graduate students has shifted-- generally
more of the former; fewer of the latter-- although this can fluctuate. Because our Center has professorial faculty, much of the
research is now collaborative and multi-disciplinary.
We work as a group, with different investigators taking the lead on
different projects, guided by a programmatic theme. I think this model will be increasingly seen in our field.
Faced with increasing technological complexity and diversity, larger
data bases, and considering that one must stay the course in science (and
not flit from one unrelated experiment to another), we profit from advancing
as a group. For example, there
is often more than one promising approach to a research problem, and a
laboratory group can take multiple paths and then coalesce on the one that's
paying off. The important thing
is, of course, to encourage independent talent, and at the same time meld
diverse ideas and methods around a common goal.
In this way, achievements are possible that are well beyond the
resources of individual, isolated scientists.
An important teaching initiative at the Center is our post-bac
program, in which students with the B.S. join us for two years as full-time
research assistants. Graduates
in this program gain valuable experience in the different areas of
psychophysiological research and data analysis (e.g., fMRI, EEG, autonomic
and somatic reflex monitoring). They
attend meetings and seminars of the Center, develop significant technical
skills and laboratory competencies, and thereby greatly improving their
competitive position in applying to graduate school.
there a specific highlight of your academic career?
So far, it's been a great
ride! I like the motto of my
high school, to which I trudged through many a Buffalo winter-- "The
best is yet to be."
you weren't an academic psychologist, what else would you be doing?
What I'm doing continues to
be more fun than anything else I can think of.