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A Great Leap in Understanding How the Brain Processes Emotions

emotion brain patterns

Image credit: Cornell University.

To different people, various things, such as visual stimulus and different taste sensations could cause emotion. But what is the relationship between the different feelings and sensory perception? Published in Nature Neuroscience, the latest research hosted by Adam Anderson from Cornell University has discovered that emotions are encoded by the brain in a very standardized way.

As Anderson explained in a press release, they found that acting as a neural code, the fine-grained patterns of neural activity within the orbitofrontal cortex, where brain is associated with emotional processing, could capture the subjective feeling of an individual.

This new study poses the challenge to the previous beliefs that different areas of the brain were responsible for creating emotions, relying on whether they were positive or negative. However, such study demonstrates that the brain is capable of producing a wide spectrum of subjective emotions

In the study, 16 participants were tested with fMRI. During the experiment, those participants were exposed to 128 visual scenes for 3 seconds. Afterwards, on a scale of 1-7, they were requested to give rating on how positive or negative their invoked emotion was. After the analysis of brain activity of the participants, the scientists had identified distinct patterns causing certain emotions. In the following step, the same participants were requested again to repeat the experiment after being exposed to different taste stimuli, with similar results.

According to the tests, when people get similar pleasure from drinking a high-quality whiskey or watching the sun rise, it means they share similar fine-grained patterns of activity in the orbitofrontal cortex.

It seems that the human brain could create a special code for the whole valence spectrum related with feelings of being pleasant-to-unpleasant or good-to-bad. It could be used as a ‘neural valence meter’, in which the leaning of a population of neurons in different direction would decide the feeling is positive or negative.

It appears that specific patterning of activity could create valence. Some areas of the brain seem to be sensory-specific, while the orbitofrontal cortices seem to generate codes that are sensory-independent. Instead of having discrete regions of the brain to produce these codes and process emotion, it seems to be tied into how sensory information is perceived.

No matter what the stimulus was, either visual or by taste, the patterns in brain activity were obviously similar within the individual. However there were also similarities that spanned across the participants involved in the study.

In summarizing his study, Anderson explained that although our feelings were respectively personal, the study results confirmed that human brains apply a standard code when speaking the same emotional language.

Source: Cornell University

Journal reference: Chikazoe, Junichi, et al. “Population coding of affect across stimuli, modalities and individuals.” Nature neuroscience (2014).