Study cracks how the brain processes emotions

July 9, 2014 by Melissa Osgood, Cornell University
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: A physician's ability to empathize may be in the genes

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

Related Stories

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 ...

New Religious Brain Project seeks to uncover brain activation during religious and spiritual experiences

February 7, 2014
A group of researchers at the University of Utah has launched a new project aimed at understanding how the brain operates in people with deep spiritual and religious beliefs.

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.

Nerves of endearment: How a gentle touch affects emotions

May 22, 2014
A soft and tender caress between two people can trigger a flood of emotions, and now we may have some idea why.

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.

Neural sweet talk: Taste metaphors emotionally engage the brain

June 25, 2014
So accustomed are we to metaphors related to taste that when we hear a kind smile described as "sweet," or a resentful comment as "bitter," we most likely don't even think of those words as metaphors. But while it may seem ...

Recommended for you

New neuron-like cells allow investigation into synthesis of vital cellular components

January 22, 2018
Neuron-like cells created from a readily available cell line have allowed researchers to investigate how the human brain makes a metabolic building block essential for the survival of all living organisms. A team led by researchers ...

Finding unravels nature of cognitive inflexibility in fragile X syndrome

January 22, 2018
Mice with the genetic defect that causes fragile X syndrome (FXS) learn and remember normally, but show an inability to learn new information that contradicts what they initially learned, shows a new study by a team of neuroscientists. ...

Epilepsy linked to brain volume and thickness differences

January 22, 2018
Epilepsy is associated with thickness and volume differences in the grey matter of several brain regions, according to new research led by UCL and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

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.