Study cracks how the brain processes emotions

July 9, 2014 by Melissa Osgood
This image illustrates how the brain processes emotion. Credit: Cornell University

Although feelings are personal and subjective, the human brain turns them into a standard code that objectively represents emotions across different senses, situations and even people, reports a new study by Cornell University neuroscientist Adam Anderson.

"We discovered that fine-grained patterns of neural activity within the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with emotional processing, act as a neural code which captures an individual's subjective feeling," says Anderson, associate professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology and senior author of the study. "Population coding of affect across stimuli, modalities and individuals," published online in Nature Neuroscience.

Their findings provide insight into how the brain represents our innermost – what Anderson calls the last frontier of neuroscience – and upend the long-held view that emotion is represented in the brain simply by activation in specialized regions for positive or , he says.

"If you and I derive similar pleasure from sipping a fine wine or watching the sun set, our results suggest it is because we share similar fine-grained patterns of activity in the ," Anderson says.

Credit: Cornell University

"It appears that the generates a special code for the entire valence spectrum of pleasant-to-unpleasant, good-to-bad feelings, which can be read like a 'neural valence meter' in which the leaning of a population of neurons in one direction equals positive feeling and the leaning in the other direction equals negative feeling," Anderson explains.

For the study, the researchers presented participants with a series of pictures and tastes during functional neuroimaging, then analyzed participants' ratings of their subjective experiences along with their .

Anderson's team found that valence was represented as sensory-specific patterns or codes in areas of the brain associated with vision and taste, as well as sensory-independent codes in the orbitofrontal cortices (OFC), suggesting, the authors say, that representation of our internal subjective experience is not confined to specialized emotional centers, but may be central to perception of sensory experience.

They also discovered that similar subjective feelings – whether evoked from the eye or tongue – resulted in a similar pattern of activity in the OFC, suggesting the contains an emotion code common across distinct experiences of pleasure (or displeasure), they say. Furthermore, these OFC activity patterns of positive and negative experiences were partly shared across people.

"Despite how personal our feelings feel, the evidence suggests our brains use a standard code to speak the same emotional language," Anderson concludes.

Explore further: Neuroscientists unlock shared brain codes

More information: Population coding of affect across stimuli, modalities and individuals, Nature Neuroscience (2014) DOI: 10.1038/nn.3749

Related Stories

Neuroscientists unlock shared brain codes

October 20, 2011

A team of neuroscientists at Dartmouth College has shown that different individuals' brains use the same, common neural code to recognize complex visual images.

Human emotion: We report our feelings in 3-D

March 26, 2013

Like it or not and despite the surrounding debate of its merits, 3-D is the technology du jour for movie-making in Hollywood. It now turns out that even our brains use 3 dimensions to communicate emotions.

A physician's ability to empathize may be in the genes

July 1, 2014

(HealthDay)—Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is associated with increased activation of brain regions involved in awareness, attention, and action planning, according to a study published online June 23 in Brain and ...

Recommended for you

Scientists show how memories are linked in the brain

July 22, 2016

Some memories just seem to go together. Think about an important experience in your life. You may also closely remember another experience that happened around that time too, like exchanging vows at your wedding, and then ...

Novel compounds arrested epilepsy development in mice

July 22, 2016

A team led by Nicolas Bazan, MD, PhD, Boyd Professor and Director of LSU Health New Orleans' Neuroscience Center of Excellence, has developed neuroprotective compounds that may prevent the development of epilepsy. The findings ...

Scientists apply new imaging tool to common brain disorders

July 20, 2016

A Yale-led team of researchers developed a new approach to scanning the brain for changes in synapses that are associated with common brain disorders. The technique may provide insights into the diagnosis and treatment of ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

thingumbobesquire
not rated yet Jul 10, 2014
Aesthetics is not irrational. Contrary to "modern art" or post modernism, or "isms" etc.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.