Last week, we asked the experts to explain some of the major recent developments in the field of emotions and psychology.
This week, we ask:
Rolf Reber, author of Critical Feeling: How to Use Feelings Strategically
Ross Buck, author of Emotion: A Biosocial Synthesis
Ursula Hess and Agneta Fischer, authors of Emotional Mimicry in Social Context:
Martijn Van Zomeren, author of From Self to Social Relationships: An Essentially Relational Perspective on Social
There is little brain research in my “Critical Feeling” book because I am sceptical about its utility to understand emotions, at least in its present form. Although rare examples of brain research examine theoretical questions that foster deeper understanding of emotions, most research tells us about the brain localization of emotion activation without yielding new insights on the workings of emotions in everyday life. Imagine a teacher having a student who suffers from test anxiety. How useful is it for the teacher to know about the brain localization of test anxiety? In fact, not much; it would be more useful to know why the student is anxious, what triggers this state, what are the negative effects of test anxiety and how these debilitating effects could best be alleviated. Unfortunately, laypeople are more likely to attend to and to believe in reports of scientific findings when accompanied by glossy pictures, for example flashy brain scans. They may therefore miss out on useful but unspectacular research findings from different branches of good old psychology.
The brain plays a role in two distinct but often confused aspects of emotion: the subjective experience of affective qualia; and emotional communication, including display (sending) and preattunement (receiving) aspects. Affective qualia are always with us: like the feel of our shoes on our feet, they are always available to consciousness if we choose to attend to them. I like the analogy of a symphony: complex neurochemical systems constantly playing but usually in pianissimo and ignored. In mood states (for example associated with seasonal affective disorder or SAD), the symphony plays close to the threshold of consciousness. In a strong emotional state, the symphony rises in crescendo and dominates consciousness. Biological emotions are organized hierarchically in the central nervous system: at the base are mechanisms of arousal and reward-punishment responsible for the strong-weak and positive-negative dimensions that suffuse all emotions; subcortical (“reptilian”) structures are associated with raw sex and violence; and paleocortical (“limbic”) structures are associated with specific affects associated with a variety of neurochemical systems. Emotional communication involves displays such as facial expressions, which are not closely coupled with specific areas of the brain but are sculpted by the environment: thus a fear display may be associated with a variable mixture of affects associated with DBI, CCK, and CRH. Emotional communication is associated with right-hemisphere analogs of Broca’s area (for sending) and Wernicke’s area (for receiving), as demonstrated by effects of brain damage as well as fMRI responses to spontaneous facial expressions in those areas.
A number of different processes underlie emotion understanding: First, pattern matching relates specific emotion cues to specific emotions (i.e. upturned corner of the mouth = smile = happiness), and second, perspective taking. Perspective taking depends on Theory of mind circuits and more generally is associated with activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. The perception of emotion cues is not reliably associated with specific brain areas. Older ideas such that fear cues are processed in the Amygdala have not been confirmed, rather all sufficiently ambiguous emotion stimuli seem to be processed in the Amygdala.
It is difficult to understand emotions without consideration of the workings of the brain. However, this does not imply that through understanding the workings of the brain we will know all there is about emotions. There are at least two reasons for this. First of all, we need to know more about how the brain is geared toward relationship regulation. In my new book, I develop a hypothesis about how this may work, namely that people can essentially feel any changes in their relationships in their social network. This feeling of what happens to my relationships provides the first spark toward relationship regulation. And second, we need to know more about how culture shapes the brain. After all, we know that cultures differ on dimensions related to relationship regulation (e.g., individualism, power distance, and so on). If people grow up in cultures with a particular preference toward ways of regulating relationships (in ways fitting with the rules of communal, authority, exchange or market-like relationships), then it follows that culture should also shape the brain processes that enable such preferences. So, we need to better understand how the brain mediates our relationship regulation and emotion processes — not how it governs them.
Next week, the experts weigh in on whether or not our emotions affect our health.