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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Molly Crockett

16 Jun, 2014

Dr Molly CrockettDr Molly Crockett is a research fellow at University College London and the University of Oxford. She currently holds a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship and works on the neural basis of human morality and decision making. We found out more about her work.. 

What are you working on?
I’m interested in the neurobiology of human morality – what are the brain processes that enable us to care for the welfare of others?  How are these processes compromised in mental illness? And how do we learn about the moral character of other people? I do behavioural and brain imaging experiments to investigate these questions.

What does your average day involve?
Depends on the day! If I’m in a data collection phase, I’ll spend most of my time programming experiments and interacting with study volunteers. Other times I’ll be analyzing behaviour and brain imaging data, and writing about my findings for academic journals and public communication. I also travel quite a bit to present my work at conferences.

Why is your work important?
People are profoundly social, and so much of our well-being depends on having healthy social relationships. Our relationships, in turn, depend on mutual care and concern for one another. Social relationships are often disturbed in mental illness. Our work aims to develop better tools for understanding how and when social relationships succeed and fail in health and disease.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?
I hope that our work will enable researchers and clinicians to develop more sensitive tests for diagnosing abnormal social behaviour, and better treatments for helping patients with social problems.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?
My undergraduate mentor, Professor Matt Lieberman at UCLA, introduced me to the fascinating world of social neuroscience and I’ve been passionate about it ever since.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?
My Sir Henry Wellcome fellowship allowed me to spend time in a behavioural economics laboratory in Zurich, where I had the opportunity to work with Ernst Fehr, one of the leading economists studying altruism. Spending time in his lab profoundly shaped my thinking about human social interaction and strongly influenced my later work at University College London.

B0003335 Brain and perception - artworkWhat’s the most frequently asked question about your work?
When people hear I study the brain, they often ask if I can “read people’s minds”. I think this notion is the unfortunate consequence of overly optimistic media reports of brain imaging studies. We’re certainly not at the point where we can tell what someone is thinking or feeling just by looking at their brain scan.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…
Over the past few years I’ve done a lot of public engagement work. I used to get quite nervous when speaking in public, so to combat this nervousness I signed up for an improvisational comedy course. It was loads of fun and definitely helped with stage fright – I would strongly recommend the experience.

What keeps you awake at night?
I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to link our laboratory findings to bigger societal questions about how people trade off costs and benefits for others – for example, how policy makers decide whether to enact policies that increase social inequality or adversely affect people’s health.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Be patient – science is a slow process!

The ‘chain reaction’ question, set by our previous featured researcher, Prof Andrew Wilkie is:  “What single discovery have you made that you are most proud of, and why?”
I can’t talk about it at length, because it’s not yet published – but I’ve developed a new way to measure human morality in the lab and I’m very excited to see where this line of work will lead.

You can find out more about Dr Molly Crockett on her website or by following her on Twitter. You might also be interested in reading the following papers that she has published:
Models of morality and Serotonin Modulates Striatal Responses to Fairness and Retaliation in Humans

Image credit: Brain and perception – Chris Nurse, Wellcome Images

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