Lab Member Highlight: Meet Michael Masucci!

by: Megan Zhang

Michael Masucci recently joined the Neuroscience and Education Lab as a research assistant. Currently in his final year of NYU’s General Psychology graduate program, Michael is completing a master’s thesis about the relationship between psychopathology, motivation, and aesthetic experience.

Why did you decide to join the Neuroscience and Education Lab?

With a background in cognitive psychology, I’d never done policy-oriented research. After reading about the findings coming from NEL and their community impact, I became very excited to do research that would contribute to positive change in social policy.

What are some of your responsibilities here?

I’m a research assistant for the Chicago School Readiness Project, and I help in a few ways. My main responsibility is preparing for the NYC pilot study we are doing in April to test some of our new measures before implementing them with the sample in Chicago. My current focus is on recruiting up to 120 students from private and community organizations to participate in the pilot. To lighten the load of the assessors as they have to keep track of students, I am programming all of our measures in Inquisit and Qualtrics so they can be run with as little input from the assessor as possible. In addition, I clean and aggregate CSRP data as needed for researchers in and outside of the lab.

What are some areas of developmental research that you’d really like to explore?

The influence of cognitive function on identity formation is one of my areas of interest. Many personality disorders are characterized by impulsivity and attention/memory dysfunction. I think it is worthwhile to look at the specific cognitive mechanisms that lead to certain personality patterns, and how similar deficits can yield different personalities under the influence of different sociocultural variables. I’d also like to investigate how early performance on executive function tasks can predict and inform the diagnosis of psychopathology.

You received a double-major bachelor’s degree in psychology and philosophy. How has your philosophy major tied into or influenced your psychology career?

One of my favorite parts about psychology is that many domains of research involve testing philosophical ideas empirically. My study in philosophy focused mainly on philosophy of mind and how people come to know the world. These are the areas I am also trying to pursue in psychology by looking at how people distinguish fantasy from reality, and how they come up with radically different narratives despite exposure to similar experiences. In a philosophical vein, I also love to analyze the assumptions underlying psychometrics, psychotherapy and diagnosis.

Tell us a little about your master’s thesis about the relationship among psychopathology, motivation, and aesthetic experience.

Historically, there have been quite a few ideas of what aesthetic experience is, and we’re just now developing the tools to test these philosophical conceptions. My thesis looked at the idea that being extremely moved by the beauty of artwork puts one in a state of “Disinterested Interest,” a view proposed by Kant, where art is appreciated without regard to its survival benefits. In cognitive terms, this would mean that art produces a state of “liking” without “wanting,” and this is the hypothesis I tested with Dr. Edward Vessel & NYU ArtLab. We had participants from clinical and non-clinical samples view art images and rate how much they were moved, as well as work to view them by pressing keys. We found that, against the disinterested interest hypothesis, people’s tendency to rate art as moving and to work to view it were both affected by their willingness to work (as measured by the BIS-BAS scales), while their ratings should have been more influenced by their hedonic capacity (as measured by the TEPS scales). This means that motivation plays some role in aesthetic experience, and that experimental measures of hedonic capacity need to be reevaluated. We had quite a few other findings, and I hope to present on them soon!

Where do you hope to be 5 years down the road?

I recently completed my applications to doctoral programs in clinical psychology, and I would be thrilled to be defending my dissertation 5 years from now. Ideally, I will be researching how sociocultural variables, especially religious involvement, affect schizophrenia-prone individuals, and ways to identify and prevent psychosis in a religious context.