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Plotting the Pattern of Emotion

Though our feelings may seem unique, our brains process them using a similar pattern of neuron activation.

By Carl Engelking
Nov 26, 2014 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:25 AM
Nerve cells: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock. Faces: Lassedesignen/Shutterstock. Illustration: Dan Bishop/Discover


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Rock legend Tom Petty famously crooned that we just don’t know how it feels to be him. Well, he might be wrong.

In June, neuroscientist Adam Anderson’s team at Cornell University demonstrated that, though our feelings may seem unique, our brains process them using a similar pattern of brain cell, or neuron, activation — meaning we feel feelings the same way. To find that pattern, researchers monitored 16 participants’ brain activity while presenting them with images and tastes; subjects then rated their feelings about each.

The team saw that when participants reported similar feelings, their brain cells fired in a similar sequence. Specifically, when more neurons fired in one direction along the sequence, participants reported positive feelings; when more neurons fired in the other direction, they reported negative feelings. Looking at a beautiful sunset or sipping a favorite cocktail, for example, evoked the same firing in the “positive” direction in each person.

This pattern of activity runs through vision- and taste-processing brain regions, indicating our subjective feelings are actually intertwined with perception. That is, our sensations are preloaded with emotions. According to Anderson, that upends the traditional belief that the brain perceives feelings first and then processes them in its emotional centers. Instead, seeing and feeling both happen at the same time.

Experts hope next to understand how this sequence differs in individuals with mental disorders, potentially leading to better treatment.

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