This Is What Your Brain Looks Like On Different Emotions


Ben Taub

Freelance Writer

clockSep 16 2016, 18:46 UTC

Happiness and sadness are associated with distinct patterns of neural activity. ArtFamily/Shutterstock

Scientists have come up with an algorithm that can tell which emotions you are experiencing by looking at your brain activity, and believe this could help to assess the psychological status of patients suffering from conditions like depression. Interestingly, when using this technique to analyze the neural activity of participants while not thinking about anything in particular, the researchers were able to observe how the idle mind naturally fluctuates between different emotional states, thereby providing key insights into patients’ temperament and character.

The study, led by Duke University and which appears in the journal PLOS Biology, builds on previous research in which scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of volunteers while they watched films or listened to music deliberately designed to evoke certain feelings. During this prior experiment, the researchers were able to identify what the activity patterns associated with each of these different emotions looks like in the brain.


This time, however, the team were interested in learning how these feelings spontaneously occur in the brain when it is not directly focusing on anything with a specific emotional content. To do this, they trained a computer to recognize the neural patterns associated with different emotions, and used this to study the brains of volunteers as they sat doing nothing.

content-1474034665-mri-emotions.jpgMRI experiments revealed the neural patterns associated with a range of different emotions. Philip Kragel, Kevin LaBar, Duke University

Interestingly, they discovered that even during these moments of idleness, the brain switches between a range of different states, such as sadness and anger. When participants were analyzed in order to determine their levels of depression, anxiety, and aggression, the researchers began to notice a clear pattern between these scores and the brain activity of each person.


For instance, the brains of participants who scored highly for depression tended to demonstrate activity patterns associated with sadness more readily than the brains of those who scored lower. Similarly, the neural activity of those with high anxiety levels regularly aligned with patterns associated with fear, while highly aggressive people often lapsed into anger.

Summing up this discovery, the authors explain that “resting brain activity transiently fluctuates among multiple emotional states and that these fluctuations vary depending on the emotional status of an individual. Thus, emotional processes unfolding at both long and short time scales likely contribute to spontaneous brain activity.” In a statement, study co-author Kevin LaBar from Duke University claimed that this research is helping scientists to decipher the emotional states of patients without the need for communication, and “is getting to be a bit like mind-reading.”

  • tag
  • MRI,

  • depression,

  • aggression,

  • Emotions,

  • anxiety,

  • neural activity,

  • mind reading