June 21, 2024

The Mind’s Ability to Construct Emotions Beyond the Senses Unveiled by Neuroscientists

A recent study conducted by Italian neuroscientists from the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca in collaboration with the University of Turin has shed light on the intricate relationship between emotion and perception. The research, published in Science Advances, delves into whether the brain utilizes sensory-specific or abstract codes to build emotional experiences.

Lead author Giada Lettieri, a researcher in psychology at the IMT School, emphasizes that while emotion and perception are closely linked, the precise mechanisms underlying the brain’s representation of emotional instances have long eluded scientists. The study aimed to provide crucial insights into how the brain organizes and processes emotional information across various sensory modalities and past sensory encounters.

The researchers employed functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the brain activity of a group of 50 volunteers while watching the movie 101 Dalmatians. The participants included individuals with typical development, as well as congenitally blind and deaf volunteers who experienced the movie through either audio or visual means. Additionally, 124 independent participants were asked to express and rate their emotions while watching the movie outside the scanner, aiding in predicting the brain response of individuals with and without sensory deprivation during emotions like amusement, fear, and sadness.

Luca Cecchetti, a researcher at the IMT School and senior author of the study, explains that including individuals with congenital sensory deprivation allowed the researchers to dissect the influence of sensory experience on the neural mechanisms underlying emotions. The results revealed that emotions are represented in the brain irrespective of sensory experiences and modalities. A distributed network involving sensory, prefrontal, and temporal brain regions was found to collectively encode emotional instances. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex was identified as a key region for storing an abstract representation of emotions, highlighting that emotional meaning is generated by the brain independent of sensory input.

The presence of an abstract coding of emotions in the brain suggests that our emotions are not solely dependent on external stimuli but are constructed internally by the brain. This finding challenges the notion that emotions are directly shaped by our surroundings and underscores the brain’s ability to generate emotional meaning regardless of sensory limitations.

Lettieri emphasizes the importance of understanding how mental faculties and their corresponding neural representations can develop in individuals deprived of certain senses. This knowledge is crucial for advancing our understanding of emotions and the human brain, particularly in individuals who are sensory-deprived and often marginalized.

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