Brain Cooks Heart: Affective Emotions Versus Emotional Affections


If our emotions are a duet played between the self and the environment, then our ability to regulate them keeps us in harmony with the outside world – Dr. T. D. Wager

Main Course: The emotional brain with a side of social cognition

Emotions are defined as psychological states or processes; many researchers link emotions with goal management functions. Emotions have sparked investigations and debates in the Western world since Aristotle. Charles Darwin also explored emotions and their utility; however, the investigations continue and we have yet to say we know what emotions are and what occurs when a human feels emotional. In order to present human emotions in a well-developed sense, we shall now explore the regions in the brain that are responsible for emotional processing. After familiarizing ourselves with the brain’s duties, we will look at a couple studies focused on emotions, as well as emotions in regards to social cognition. Historically emotions have been associated with the limbic system, but this association is problematic. Nevertheless, the connection between emotions and the limbic system lingers, because the amygdala illustrates activity during emotion studies. In addition to studies, lesions in this area also demonstrate the amygdala’s connection to emotion processing. Fellous. Armony, and LeDoux state that cells in the amygdale show sensitivities to reward/punishment features of stimuli and social implications (Fellous, Armony, & LeDoux, 2002). They also define the amygdale as ‘an experimentally accessible entry point into the distributed network of brain regions that mediate complex emotional evaluations’ (Fellous, Armony, LeDoux , 2002).

The Amygdala:The Amygdala

  • Receives input from each of the major sensory systems and from higher-order association areas of the cortex, which allow a variety of levels of information representation to impact this region of the brain
  • The amygdala sends output projects into a variety of brainstem systems that are partly responsible for controlling emotional responses, such as facial expressions
  • Consists of several interacting sub-nuclei which may has specific contributions to the overall emotion processing cycle
  • These findings are largely out-comes during fear condition studies
  • Appears to significantly contribute to learning and memory for emotional learning; it might also hose crucial synaptic plasticity for emotional learning

Emotional Memory:

  • Requires the hippocampus and related areas of the cortex
  • When an emotional experience occurs that we have already encounter, the details and declarative memory require emotional flavor to activate the emotional memory system within the amygdale
  • These findings are currently debated, but an interesting possibility nonetheless
Brain Regions & Emotion Regulation Studies:

Recent studies are illustrating brain-based models of emotion regulation, which identify the prefrontal cortex as an important component for cognitive emotion regulation. Brain imaging studies are demonstrating increased activity in the ventrolateral, dorsolateral, and dorsomedial prefrontal cortices when study participants use cognitive strategies in reappraisal tests to change the emotional impact a stimulus creates. These brain regions might be involved in producing the affective feelings associated with particular events or encounters. Researchers are also correlated brain activity in the right vlPFC with reduced negative emotional experiences in the cognitive reappraisal studies. The emotional regulation studies refer to using cognitive strategies or attentional focus to alter emotional reactions after viewing emotional scenes or film clips. Subjects are instructed to either attend the scene or reinterpret it in a less negative manner (i.e. people crying may actually be tears of joy rather than sorrow). The subjects who could successfully reappraised the image reported less distress and showed a decrease in physiological arousal responses (Oatley, 2004).

Ochsner (2002) also found using fMRI that attending to negative scenes results in move activation of the amygdale relative to reappraisal trials. Moreover, during the reappraisal trials, the brain showed relatively more activation of the left lateral prefrontal cortex – the same region associated with working memory (Oatley 2004). The current understandings of any neuro-anatomical connections between the amygdale and prefrontal cortex ‘suggest that the PFC may not be [directly] altering [the] amygdale functions through direct projections’ (Oatley, 2004). Rather, it occurs indirectly. This research finding demonstrates that our ability to engage executive control processes during reappraisal can change the amygdala’s responses to stimuli.

Social Cognition & Emotions: A Proposed Model

Findings from various studies show that different types of social cognition and emotional abilities recruit similar ‘suites of cortical and sub-cortical neural systems’ (Olsson & Ochsner 65, 2008). The interdependence between social cognition and emotions currently remains unknown, since not many studies have been developed to examine it. Nevertheless, a few accounts do exist to date. Olsson and Ochsner (2008) propose a neural framework to generate an understanding for the role of social cognition in emotions, which they state ‘can guide future research’ (Olsson & Ochsner 65, 2008). They base their proposed model on existing evidence that suggests Mental State Attribution contributes greatly to understanding emotions ‘through the operation of both rapid stimulus-drive processes, and more deliberate reflective and conceptually driven processes’ (Olsson & Ochsner 65, 2008). Imaging studies lend much support to their suggested model. Moreover, Olsson and Ochsner reason that ‘if motor regions [do] code intentions behind one’s own action, then if activated when observing another person […] in the same action, they could support a direct experimental understanding of that person’s intention’ (Olsson & Ochsner 65, 2008). The engagement found between the AI, ACC, and various other brain regions is thought to facilitate the ‘automatic sharing of […] different states’ (Olsson & Ochsner 65, 2007). However, Olsson & Ochsner (2008) presume that the associations people craft about one another can interfere with that process if the experiences were negative and the person is a past competitor. An interesting side note from the article states that the brain utilized the same regions to reflect upon others’ emotional expressions and states that are activated during self-reflection on emotions, which the Olsson & Ochsner (2008) extend to ‘theories suggesting that in some cases we treat ourselves as an ‘other’ when making self-judgments’ (Olsson & Ochsner 67, 2008). However, the reverse may also be true in this case. Nevertheless, the few findings demonstrate and suggest that understanding others’ emotions via MSA ‘is supported by a distributed functional network including cingulated and insula regions […] important for stimulus-driven processing of social cues, and their […] intentions’ (Olsson & Ochsner 67, 2008). Based upon various findings from the few available accounts on the topic Olsson and Ochsner (2008) propose that social cognition, ‘particularly MSA’ and emotions could be understood ‘in terms of three related but distinct dimensions of functional-anatomic organization’ (Olsson & Ochsner 68, 2008). Their proposed model is as follows: Lateral regions process the external input, while the medial regions represent information about the internal states. The posterior medial regions represent body state information with ‘increasing complexity as processing moves anteriorly towards the frontal pole and BA 10’ (Olsson & Ochsner 69, 2008). Then, the BA 10 integrates information about the internal state with higher-level mental state knowledge, which categorizes the affective state. As the information processing moves from the ventral to the dorsal regions, the input becomes less ‘stimulus driven, which enables’ explicit judgments about one’s own and others’ emotional states (Olsson & Ochsner 69, 2008).