Psychology ETDs

Publication Date

Spring 4-13-2022


The fields of psychology and neuroscience have found an interconnection between the autonomic nervous system (ANS), affect, and cognitive performance. Heart rate variability (HRV) may be a useful index of this relationship, representing the regulatory processes that facilitate adapting to emotions and environments to modulate mood and executive function. The current project consists of a series of experiments to investigate the relationship between trait affect, HRV, learning, and set-shifting performance. In the first experiment associations are found between negative affectivity, HRV, and set-shifting performance during an attentional set-shifting variant of the Virtual Morris Water Task (VMWT). Participants that exhibited both higher trait negative affectivity and lower baseline HRV displayed lower behavioral flexibility performance in the task. In Experiment 2, VMWT effects on HRV are examined. HRV is compared for individuals who completed the task and those that failed learning or failed shifting phases of the task. In the Complete group, HRV decreased during the task and remained low during a 5-minute recovery period. This pattern was not observed in the groups that failed to complete the task, suggesting ANS sregulation deficits potentially playing a role in failure to perform the task. When investigating changes by phase, it was found that the extradimensional shift condition elicited the significant decrease in HRV. In the final experiment, a single 10-minute HRV biofeedback training was given to participants to investigate if increases in vagal tone immediately elicit changes in flexibility and mood. The biofeedback group (BFB) showed increases in mood and HRV while exhibiting decreases in Wisconsin card sort task (WCST) preservative errors. These findings taken together aid in the understanding of underlying vagal mechanisms that effect the emotion-cognition relationship, and may provide evidence for novel, noninvasive, and quick interventions that target vagal modulation to enhance cognitive performance and executive function.

Degree Name


Level of Degree


Department Name


First Committee Member (Chair)

Derek A Hamilton

Second Committee Member

Jeremy Hogeveen

Third Committee Member

Brandi C Fink

Fourth Committee Member

Nathan Pentkowski

Fifth Committee Member

Benjamin Clark




heart rate variability, affect, HRV biofeedback, set-shifting, behavioral flexibility

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Included in

Psychology Commons