Neuroscientists crack the brain’s emotional code

While our emotions are subjective and probably the most personal thing about us, the mechanisms in the brain that deal with those emotions run like clockwork according to a new study by Adam Anderson of Cornell University.

“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. Population coding of affect across stimuli, modalities and individuals,” said Anderson, associate professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and senior author of the study, in a statement.

The standard view has long been that positive or negative emotions activate specialized regions of the brain which deal with those emotions. This latest work provides new insight, suggesting that the brain turns emotions into a standard code of positive and negative regardless of what is stimulating the emotion, or what senses are involved.

“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. 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,” said Anderson.

Anderson and his colleagues provided research participants with a set of stimuli, these included photos and taste, both pleasant and unpleasant. The researchers analyzed the subjects ratings of their experiences, how they said they felt along with brain activation patterns.

They found that valance, a scale used on psychology to describe the range of positive and negative feelings, was represented as sensory-specific codes as well as independent codes in the orbitofrontal cortices.

The researchers suggest that this suggests that emotion, rather than being confined to specialized areas of the brain, may be central to sensory experience. In other words, emotion may be a critical component to our processing of information from the world around us. Additionally, the researchers found that the OFC activity patterns were, at least in part, shared among people.

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

The findings are published in Nature Neuroscience.