Eric Peterson, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

  • Postdoctoral Training: Department of Psychiatry, University of Colorado Denver Health Sciences, Brain Imaging Center
  • Ph.D.: Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
  • B.A.: University of Massachusetts at Amherst
  • Curriculum Vitae

Contact Information

  • Email: eric.peterson@unco.edu
  • Phone: (970) 351-1057
  • Office: McKee Room 62
  • Course website: Under construction
  • Laboratory web site: Under construction/li>
  • Personal website: Under construction
  • Office Hours Fall 2012:
    • Tuesday, Thursday: 12:45 - 1:45
    • Thursday: 3:30 - 5:30

Courses Taught

  • Cognition (in-class and online)
  • Graduate Seminar in Social Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Child Development
  • Lifespan Development
  • Graduate Seminar in Autism
  • Human Growth and Development

Research Interests

My primary research interests reflect a few basic questions that are relevant to both typical and atypical development: How do cognitive and emotional processes interact within an individual to contribute to one’s personality and social behavior? What developmental factors give rise to this outcome? Can we begin to explore underlying brain mechanisms? I have undertaken a range of research projects that cohere around these questions. In graduate school, I worked in a developmental laboratory dedicated to the study of individual differences in the biological basis of temperament. Later, I joined a brain-imaging laboratory that explored neural mechanisms associated with autism and schizophrenia. My current research at the University of Northern Colorado reflect influences from both of these settings.

Two particular themes characterize my work across the past few years. First, I remain compelled by the search for mechanisms that contribute to individual differences Second, I am particularly interested in implicit, relatively automatic processes that contribute to mental state understanding. For example, we decode emotional cues across nonverbal channels (facial expression, vocal information) effortlessly. Indeed, we are influenced by threatening information (an angry face) even when the stimulus is presented below the threshold for conscious awareness. The use of implicit face emotion processing tasks has been very fruitful in the study of individual differences both within typical samples and among individuals with psychiatric disorders.

  • Individual Differences in Explicit and Implicit Mental State Understanding among Adults
  • Childhood Trauma and the Development of Face Emotion Processing
  • An Exploration of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test
  • Global and Local Processing in Visual Perception

Visual scenes are comprised of wholes (the global form) and parts (local elements). In ordinary perception, we integrate parts and wholes effortlessly.

Individual Differences in Explicit and Implicit Mental State Understanding among Adults

What differentiates someone who is exceptionally good at understanding others' mental states (like a skilled psychotherapist) from another person who finds other people confusing? To date, researchers have been successful at designing instruments with adequate sensitivity for discriminating among adults with and without disorders characterized by impaired social cognition (e.g., autism, schizophrenia). However, the goal of identifying individual differences in mental-state understanding among adults free from disorders presents difficult problems.

In addition to the issue of instrument sensitivity, there is a potential validity problem as individual differences information gleaned from a specific given task may reflect something other than mentalizing (e.g., another aspect of personality or cognitive status). Following a framework established by Simon Baron-Cohen, a prominent autism researcher whose research also explores individual differences in mentalizing among neurotypical individuals, we are recruiting two groups (MFA students in creative writing and MA students in Chemical and Electrical Engineering) for which we have an a priori belief about mentalizing. Simply put, we believe that creative writers will more likely show an increased propensity for thinking about others' mental states whereas engineers will more likely be relatively stronger in thinking about nonhuman systems ("systemizing" in the Baron-Cohen framework). Our study will ask three primary questions.

  1. Can we develop a battery of mentalizing tasks with adequate sensitivity to discriminate between these two groups (our exploratory question)?
  2. To what degree do our different instruments relate to each other? We have intentionally combined relatively lower-level implicit tasks and others that involve higher-level processes. While it is widely appreciated that explicit and implicit processes contribute to mentalizing in natural contexts the relationship between different processes remains unclear.
  3. To what extent does performance in either implicit or explicit tasks relate to general cognitive processes (e.g., verbal IQ, working memory).

Childhood Trauma and the Development of Face Emotion Processing

With a graduate student, I am beginning a study examining the relationship between childhood stress associated with abuse (as measured by the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire) and face emotion processing. We have developed a series of paradigms designed to explore the degree to which the chronic interpersonal stress of an abusive environment may contribute to differences in face emotion processing and influence overall social cognitive phenotype. Specifically, our paradigms were designed to examine three related questions.

  1. Do individuals with childhood interpersonal trauma histories show an increased perceptual sensitivity for threatening emotion such that they detect anger with minimal perceptual input?
  2. Do such individuals show an increased deployment of attentional resources to threatening face emotion displays such that they experience relatively more difficulty disengaging attention from threatening relative to nonthreatening faces?
  3. Do these individuals show a face-emotion processing bias such that they are more likely to identify ambiguous face emotion stimuli as displaying negative, threatening emotions? We believe our study will provide novel insight into the cognitive sequelae of child abuse.

An Exploration of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test

The "Eyes Task" was originally designed for the comparison of high functioning adults on the autism spectrum and family members (i.e., the study of the broader phenotype) to normally-developing samples. The task involves examining pairs of eyes cut out from the face and making a forced-choice among four mental state descriptors and is presumed to measure the implicit ability to "read" mental state information conveyed in the eye region. Across the past decade the Eyes Task has been used as a mentalizing instrument in more than 270 studies including a wide range of disorders and normally-developing samples. Despite widespread acceptance of this instrument, there has been remarkably little effort to subject it to rigorous psychometric analysis.

In an effort to explore the Eyes Task, I recently began collaborating with Dr. Steven Pulos, a colleague with a particular expertise in psychometric evaluation of instruments. With several students, we presented four posters at the Association for Psychological science conference in 2011. Currently, we have four manuscripts in preparation or submission. The first submission has been written for the Journal of Experimental and Clinical Neuropsychology. This paper presents evidence that individual performance on the Eyes Task loads highly on verbal IQ but not at all on a very basic face processing measure. This finding is problematic for the conception of the Eyes Task as an implicit mentalizing measure relatively free of general cognitive demand. The second paper that will soon be submitted presents meta-analytic evidence of a gender effect for Eyes Task performance. Consistent with previous research on gender differences in nonverbal behavior, our meta-analysis provides very strong evidence of a female advantage on this task.

Global and Local Processing in Visual Perception

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Grants, Awards, Professional Honors

Mentorship Contributing to Student Awards

  • Christopher Gonzales, University of Northern Colorado, Undergraduate Research Day Presentation Finalist, Spring 2011
  • Christopher Gonzales, Acceptance to Arizona State University, Ph.D. Program (with full funding)
  • Christopher Gonzales, College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, Undergraduate Scholar, Spring 2011
  • Klaus Broeker, College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, Undergraduate Scholar, Spring 2011
  • Klaus Broeker, National Conference for Undergraduate Research, Finalist, Fall 2010
  • Klaus Broeker, University of Northern Colorado Undergraduate Research Day Poster Presentation, First Place, Fall 2010
  • Jessica Montoya, McNair Scholars Research Competition, Second Place, Spring 2008

Teaching Related Awards

  • Delta Zeta Sorority Nomination for Outstanding Professor
  • University of Northern Colorado, College of Education & Behavioral Sciences. Outstanding Advising Nomination
  • University of Northern Colorado, College of Education & Behavioral Sciences. Outstanding Teaching Nomination

Grants

  • 2012 Associate Vice President Award, Summer Support Initiative, Grant Funding for Summer Research.
  • 2009 The Broad Autism Phenotype and Professional Identity. Faculty Research and Publication Board, Provost Award. University of Northern Colorado. In collaboration with Dr. Paul Klaczynski.
  • 2008 The Obesity Stigmatization among Children and Adults: An Experimental Approach. Faculty Research and Publication Board, Provost Award. University of Northern Colorado. In collaboration with Dr. Paul Klaczynski
  • 2006 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award. National Institute of Health Loan Repayment Program.

Peer Review Articles

Gadgil, Milind, Peterson, E., Tregellas, J., Hepburn, S., & Rojas, D. (in preparation). Differences in global and local level information processing in autism: An fMRI investigation.

Peterson, E., & Peterson, R.L (revision requested, Journal of Cognition and Development). The development of global and local processing: A comparison of children to adults.

Peterson, E., & Miller, S.M.G (under review, Frontiers in Psychology). The Eyes Test as a Measure of Individual Differences: How much of the variance reflects Verbal IQ rather than social cognition?

Kirkland, R.G, Peterson, E., Baker, C. G, Miller, S.G, and Pulos, S. (under review, Sex Roles). Meta-analysis reveals female superiority in the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test.”

Peterson, E., Schmidt, G., Tregellas, J.R., Winterrowd, E., Kopelioff, L., Hepburn, S., Reite, M., and Rojas, D.C. (2006). A voxel-based morphometry study of gray matter in parents of children with autism. NeuroReport, 17 (12), 1289 – 1292.

Rojas, D.C., Peterson, E., Winterrowd, E. , Reite, M., Rogers, S.J., and Tregellas, J. (2006). Regional gray matter volumetric changes in autism associated with social and repetitive behaviors symptoms. BMC Psychiatry, 6 (56).

Kagan, J., Snidman, N., and Peterson, E. (2000). Temperature asymmetry and behavior. Developmental Psychobiology, 37, 186 – 193.

Kagan, J., Snidman, N., Zentner, M., and Peterson, E. (1999). Infant temperament and anxious symptoms in school age children. Development and Psychopathology, 11, 209 – 224.

Kagan, J., Snidman, N., Peterson, E., Steinberg, D., and Rimm-Kaufman, S. (1995). Asymmetry of finger temperature and early behavior. Developmental Psychobiology, 28 (8), 443 – 451.

Recent Presentations

Miller, S. G, Peterson, E., Gonzales, C. U, Broeker, K. U, Pohja Peake, M. G (2012). Females Detect Emotion with Less Perceptual Information in an Emotion Morphing Paradigm. Accepted for Psychological Science Conference, Washington, DC.

Kirkland, R. G, Baker, C. G, Johnson, C. G, Peterson, E., & Pulos, S. (2012). Meta-analysis reveals a moderate relationship between tests of theory of mind and the Eyes Test. Accepted for Psychological Science Conference, Washington, DC.

Peterson, E., Broeker, K.U, and Baker, C.G (2011). In a surprise/fear discrimination RT paradigm dissonant chords prime fear. Psychological Science Conference, Washington, DC.

Miller, S.M.G, Peterson, E., Baker, C.G, Kirkland, R.G, Gonzales, C.R.U, and Klemme, H.L.U (2011). An investigation of the task demands of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. Psychological Science Conference, Washington, DC.

Gadgil, M., Peterson, E. Tregellas, J., Hepburn, S., and Rojas, D. (2011). Differences in global and local level information processing in autism: An fMRI investigation. IMFAR, San Diego, CA.

Baker, C.G, Kirkland, R.G, Miller, S.G, Pulos, S., and Peterson, E. (2011). A meta-analysis examining the relationship between IQ and the Eyes Test performance. Association for Psychological Science, Washington, DC.

Kirkland, R.G, Baker, C.G, Miller, S.G, Pulos, S., and Peterson, E. (2011). Meta-analysis reveals female superiority in the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test.” Association for Psychological Science, Washington, DC.

Baker, C.A.G, Kirkland, R.A.G, Pulos, S., and Peterson, E. (2011). The Eyes Test: Reliability and recommendations for instrument revision. Association for Psychological Science, Boston, MA.

Rattanasatien, W.G, Karlin, N.J., and Peterson, E. (2009). Translating of the Autism Spectrum Screening Questionnaire to Thai, The Asia Pacific Autism Conference, Sydney, Australia.

Peterson, E., Jost, S.U, Brown, S.U, Mitton, L.U, Montoya, J.U, Peake, M.U, Adams, C.G, and Dickerson, A.U (2009). Preattentive threat processing and subclinical autism symptomatology in college students. Society for Research in Child Development, Denver, CO.

Peterson, E., Winterrowd, E., Hepburn, S., and Rojas, D.C. (2006). Neural mechanisms of visual rhyming in autism. BIOMAG, Vancouver, Canada.

Peterson, E., Schmidt, G.L., Tragellas, J., Winterrowd, E., Kopelioff, L., Hepburn, S., Reite, M., and Rojas, D.C. (2005). A Voxel-based morphometric whole-brain analysis of parents of children with autism. Society for Neuroscience, Washington, DC.

Rojas, D.C., Tregellas, J., Peterson, E., Winterrowd, E., Kopelioff, L., Reite, M., Hepburn, S., and Rogers, S.J. (2005). Voxel-based morphometry in autism. Society for Neuroscience, Washington, DC.

Review Articles & Invited Chapters

Peterson, R.L., Peterson, E., Kirkwood, M.W. Book Review. (2011). An essential neuroanatomy reference: Thoroughly updated but not exactly revised. The Clinical Neuropsychologist.

Peterson, E. & Welsh, M(accepted 2012). The development of hot and cool executive functions: Are we getting warmer. Handbook on Executive Functioning..