Researchers Make Huge Step Forward In Understanding How The Brain Processes Emotions

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Lisa Winter

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1466 Researchers Make Huge Step Forward In Understanding How The Brain Processes Emotions
Cornell University

Emotion can be evoked by different things for different people, including visual stimulus and different taste sensations. How can feelings be tied into sensory perception? A new study led by Cornell University’s Adam Anderson has found that emotions are encoded by the brain in a very standardized way. The results of the study were published in Nature Neuroscience.

“We discovered that fine-grained patterns of neural activity within the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with emotional processing, act as a neural code which captures an individual’s subjective feeling,” Anderson said in a press release.


This research contradicts previous beliefs that different regions of the brain were responsible for producing emotions, depending on whether they were positive or negative. This study shows that the brain is able to create a wide spectrum of subjective emotions

The study utilized fMRI on 16 participants. They were exposed to 128 visual scenes for 3 seconds, then asked to rate how positive or negative their invoked emotion was on a scale of 1-7. After analyzing the participants’ brain activity, researchers were able to identify distinct patterns that caused certain emotions. The same participants were then asked to repeat the experiment after they were exposed to different taste stimuli, with similar results.

“If you and I derive similar pleasure from sipping a fine wine or watching the sun set, our results suggest it is because we share similar fine-grained patterns of activity in the orbitofrontal cortex,” Anderson says. 

“It appears that the human brain generates a special code for the entire valence spectrum of pleasant-to-unpleasant, good-to-bad feelings, which can be read like a ‘neural valence meter’ in which the leaning of a population of neurons in one direction equals positive feeling and the leaning in the other direction equals negative feeling,” he continued.


The valence appears to be created by specific patterning of activity. While some regions  of the brain appear to be sensory-specific, the orbitofrontal cortices appears to produce codes that are sensory-independent. Rather than having discrete areas of the brain to generate these codes and process emotion, it appears to be tied into how sensory information is perceived. 

Though the patterns in brain activity were quite similar within the individual, regardless if the stimulus was visual or by taste, there were also similarities that spanned across the study participants. 

“Despite how personal our feelings feel, the evidence suggests our brains use a standard code to speak the same emotional language,” Anderson explained.


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