Only a monster can make it through Forrest Gump without experiencing at least a welling of the eyes or a lump in the throat, which makes the Oscar-winning movie the perfect tool for studying emotional processing in the brain. And while the emotional rollercoaster of Forrest’s life might make it feel like your whole brain is having a meltdown, new research reveals that all the feels actually occur in one tiny portion of the cerebral cortex.
A group of volunteers were asked to report the nature and severity of their emotions during every scene of the movie, which aroused a total of 15 different affective states. Researchers then cross-referenced these feelings with brain imaging data from a previous study, which used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record activity in the brains of viewers while watching Forrest Gump.
Publishing their findings in the journal Nature Communications, the study authors found that they were able to map all of the emotions reported by participants onto a brain region called the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), which covers about 3 centimeters (1.2 inches) of the cortex.
Activity within the TPJ could be used to predict not only the type of emotion that a person was experiencing, but also the intensity of that feeling. This means that by monitoring connectivity patterns in this part of the brain, it is possible to read a person’s emotional experience in real time.
Aside from allowing the researchers to watch the Tom Hanks movie vicariously through the brains of their study participants, this finding could also lead to new understandings of emotional disorders like depression.
Study co-author Pietro Pietrini explained in a statement that “these studies are getting psychiatry closer to other fields of medicine in finding objective biological correlates of feelings.” Further research could also reveal how the cognitive mechanisms behind these emotions influence other processes like decision-making.
If all of this sounds surprising then just remember what Mama always says: “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”