Researchers are using fMRI scanners and specially designed questions to decode your mind, and it’s helping them unpick the links between behaviour and emotions.
Love and hate, happiness and sadness, boredom and fascination – the mind is capable of a wide range of emotions which can influence how we act. Modern brain scanning technology is helping researchers to understand the mind as never before, opening the door to new ways of managing negative emotions such as anger, fear and disgust.
Finding the mind has been a big challenge for psychologists. While science has often focused on localising psychological processes to distinct brain areas, recent research shows that it is tricky to pinpoint emotions to specific areas in the brain.
Dr Suzanne Oosterwijk of the University of Amsterdam has been leading the EU-funded MAPPING THE MIND project which uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activity during emotional situations. This is helping to identify the physical systems behind humankind’s most complex feature.
‘Rather than a distinct neural network being responsible for particular emotions, all mental states are constructed from the same set of networks in the brain,’ she explains. ‘The weighting of their role changes depending on what emotions or thoughts we are experiencing.’
Dr Oosterwijk asked people to lie in an fMRI scanner and asked them to imagine certain emotionally charged situations. This showed which networks were active in, for example, frightening situations. By asking participants to imagine either what they would feel or what they would think in this imagined scenario, it became clear that ‘feeling’ and ‘thinking’ triggered different patterns across the same brain networks.
The project also examined how people understand the emotions of others. ‘Context is very important,’ Dr Oosterwijk says. ‘For example, if you read text saying that someone was “wrinkling their nose in disgust” this triggers a different neural response than if you read that someone was “sick with disgust”. The latter involves parts of the brain that also support the experience of internal states.’
The technology may even give researchers the power to read people’s minds. Preliminary data from Dr Oosterwijk’s project shows that it is possible to use brain scans to decode mental events.
Based on patterns of brain activation, a computer algorithm could tell whether people imagined experiencing an emotional situation, or whether they imagined performing an emotional action. Interestingly, this same algorithm could also be used to differentiate how people understood the emotions of other people.
Knowing how emotions influence behaviour could help those who suffer from emotional disorders. Emotional biases can prompt us to flee negative situations – like an argument – whereas positive emotions such as love are instinctively attractive.
However, we can override these instincts in the interest of achieving a greater goal. For example, even if we are instinctively put off speaking to our boss about a pay rise because they have an unfriendly demeanour, we may press ahead because we want more money. Or, instead of walking away from an argument with a partner, we might persevere in the interest of making the relationship work.
‘Both of these two processes can be present at once,’ says Dr Inge Volman of University College London. ‘Sometimes they are pushing in the same direction; other times they are in conflict.’
This can require a third process to arbitrate between the emotional instinct and the longer-term goal. Through the EmotionalActions project, Dr Volman is designing tasks that will help to disentangle the complex forces at play when faced with conflicting processes.
By challenging people with emotional tasks, Dr Volman is examining whether aggressive responses are different depending on whether people have strong or weak emotional control. She is also using neurostimulation techniques – activating particular parts of the brain with state-of-the-art electrodes – to study the brain mechanisms behind, for example, reactive aggression.
'All mental states are constructed from the same set of networks in the brain.'
Dr Suzanne Oosterwijk, University of Amsterdam
This would help to understand whether aggression is linked to poor emotional control and perhaps even identify ways to treat those with clinical emotional disorders.
Our ability to control our own emotions depends on whether we believe that emotional regulation is possible, according to Prof. Maya Tamir, from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. ‘If you don’t believe emotions can change, you are unlikely to try to change them; and even if you do try, you may not use effective strategies.’
She draws an analogy between emotional regulation and studying. If students understand that studying can change their grades, they are more likely to study. Those who doubt that studying can really change their academic results either do not study at all, or fail to do it seriously when they open their textbooks. The regulation of emotion may be similar – if people understand that it is possible to control emotions, they would be more likely to try to do so, increasing the likelihood of successful emotion regulation.
Prof. Tamir tested these ideas in the BELIEFS AND EMOTIONS project. Under experimental conditions, some people were told that a pill they had taken would temporarily increase their ability to control their emotions. When shown negative films, people who expected the pill to change their ability to control emotions experienced fewer negative emotions.
Convincing people they can change their emotions may be particularly valuable in cases where emotions are debilitating, as in depression. ‘We know that depressed individuals don’t regulate their emotions effectively. What we don’t know is whether they try and fail, or just fail to try,’ says Prof. Tamir, who is now studying this complex issue.
If depressed individuals can learn that they have the power to change their emotions – they may be more likely to try, and more likely to succeed, in changing those emotions that characterise depression.
Time will tell. What seems certain is that neuroscience and psychology are combining to reveal the inner workings of the mind in ways that open new possibilities for understanding behaviour.
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