Shared Feelings
July 10, 2014

Shared Feelings

I have a lot of friends who claim to be empathic, and with all respect to them, I find the notion of so many claiming to possess such a talent fairly laughable. Especially when they are so easy to fool. Emotions and I have always had a rather complicated relationship. In a nutshell, I do not always get them. Then again, I doubt anyone has a full understanding of why they feel what they feel from time to time. In no way am I claiming myself unique in this regard. For instance, today I am angry. I have no idea why. I have been trying to pin down what is making me angry or what might have set me off, but I cannot. I just am. Normally, I am able to rein in such feelings — or at least hide them — but today while writing for Gamemaster’s Grimoire, my computer froze up and I banged my fist against the desk in frustration hard enough to startle the cat (which I will not deny was somewhat amusing).

Emotions can be very strange sometimes, and every so often they can get away from us. This is why I find the study of emotion and this physical cause/effect with our bodies so interesting.

For example, in a new study by Cornell University neuroscientist and associate professor of human development, Adam Anderson, it was found that the human brain turns our feelings into a standard code that objectively represents emotions across different senses, situations and even people. According to the study, the commonly held belief that emotion is represented physically simply by the activation of specific parts of the brain that are specialized for positive and negative feelings is wrong. Rather, it is by fine-grained patterns of neural activity within the area of the brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex, which has been associated with emotional processing, that acts as a sort-of neural code which captures and records a person’s individual feelings. For example, if two people take pleasure from watching a sun set, it is because they share a similar fine-grained pattern within their orbitofrontal cortex. According to Anderson, “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.”

In order to test this theory, the researches showed participants a number of pictures and things to taste during functional neuroimaging, analyzing the participants’ ratings of their experiences while monitoring the patterns of neurological activity. What they found was that valence was represented as sensory-specific patterns within the areas of the brain that are associated with vision and taste, as well as sensory-independent patterns in the orbitofrontal cortices, or OFC, which suggests that the representation of our own subjective experiences are not confined to specialized emotional centers, as was previously thought, but rather may be central to the perception of sensory experiences. It was also shown that similar feelings (taste or sight-based) resulted in similar patterns of activity within the OFC, which suggests that the brain contains an emotion code that is common across various distinct experiences of pleasure and discomfort. These OFC patters were also partially shared across various participants, leading the researchers to postulate that our brains code themselves similarly.

A fascinating study. Now if only I could figure out what is making me feel angry today… Oh well, I will figure out a way to deal with it somehow.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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