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Researchers in the field of neuroscience have thought long and hard about the mystery of how our brains process emotions, but it took a team of researchers at Cornell University to finally solve the puzzle. It turns out the answer lies in viewing finely grained patterns of brain activity as a neural code that records people’s subjective feelings.
If two people enjoy similar activities, then it is because they have similar patterns of brain activity, explained neuroscientist Adam Anderson, an associate professor of human development at Cornell and the lead author of the recently published study on the subject. He noted that his findings refute scientists’ long-held belief that the brain represents emotions simply by activating specialized regions for either positive or negative responses.
Instead of this region-based approach, Anderson stated that the brain creates a unique code for the entire spectrum of emotions that can be read like a gauge. If the arrow on the hypothetical gauge leans one way, it indicates pleasant feelings. If it leans the other way, then the individual is going through a negative experience.
The scientists’ research methodology called for presenting participants with a series of tastes and pictures while taking images of their brains. After gathering the data, the researchers compared the brain activation patterns with the participant’s statements on their feelings about the tastes and pictures. Their study on solving the mystery of how the brain processes emotions was published in the most recent edition of Nature Neuroscience.
The study’s authors explain that the results of the tests indicated that the tastes and pictures activated areas of the brain traditionally associated with vision and taste, but also stimulated sensory-independent regions as well. According to them, this suggests that brain activity sparked by emotions is not confined to specialized centers but is instead part of an overall perception of sensory experience. Additionally, the scientists found that similar feelings sparked similar activity patterns, indicating that the brain uses similar neural codes for differing experiences, provided the experiences in question are either both positive or both negative. These common neural patterns were also partly shared by the participants as well.
This means that if two people experienced two different positive experiences, their neural codes would be similar. Anderson concluded that in spite of how unique people believe their feelings to be, the research suggests that the brain has developed a standard system for speaking the “same emotional language.”
The Cornell study harmonizes with findings released by neuroscience researchers at the University of Valencia. According to the Spanish scientists, the brain circuits stimulated by empathy are the same ones activated by violence. Research on the surprising overlap was published in a 2010 issue of Revista de Neurologia.
Luis Moya Albiol, the lead author of the study, pointed out that while it was well-known that encouraging empathy led to a decrease in violent behavior, the reason for this effect could be biological rather than societal. In essence, he concluded, stimulating the neural circuits in one direction decreases activity in the other, and made it more difficult for an empathetic person to behave violently on a regular basis.
The findings produced by both the Cornell and University of Valencia teams provide insights into the brain’s response to subjective experiences. Their research allows future scientists an even greater chance at solving the mystery of how the brain processes emotions, and contributes toward discoveries in what Cornell’s Anderson called the last frontier of neuroscience.
By Yitzchak Besser