Tag Archives: emotion

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, June 18, 2018

by Susan Kelley

According to a radical new model of emotion in the brain, a current treatment for the most common mental health problems could be ineffective or even detrimental to about 50 percent of the population.

Since the 1970s, hundreds of studies have suggested that each hemisphere of the brain is home to a specific type of emotion. The neural system for emotions linked to approaching and engaging with the world – like happiness, pride and anger – lives in the left side of the brain, while emotions associated with avoidance – like disgust and fear – are housed in the right.

Daniel Casasanto, associate professor of human development and of psychology, adjusts electrodes on the scalp of a study participant.

But those studies were done almost exclusively on right-handed people. That simple fact has given us a skewed understanding of how emotion works in the brain, according to Daniel Casasanto, associate professor of human development and of psychology.

That long-standing model is, in fact, reversed in left-handed people, whose emotions like alertness and determination are housed in the right side of their brains, Casasanto suggests in a new study. Even more radical: The location of a person’s neural systems for emotion depends on whether they are left-handed, right-handed or somewhere in between, the research shows.

“The old model suggests that each hemisphere is specialized for one type of emotion, but that’s not true,” Casasanto said. “Approach emotions are smeared over both hemispheres according to the direction and degree of your handedness … . The big theoretical shift is, we’re saying emotion in the brain isn’t its own system. Emotion in the cerebral cortex is built upon neural systems for motor action.”

The study, “Approach motivation in human cerebral cortex,” appeared June 18 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. The paper’s first author, Geoffrey Brookshire, was a doctoral candidate in Casasanto’s lab at the University of Chicago and a visiting doctoral student in Casasanto’s lab at Cornell.

The idea for the researchers’ theory, called the “sword and shield” hypothesis, stems from Casasanto’s observation that we use our dominant hands for approach-oriented actions, while nondominant hands are used for avoidance movements.

“You would wield the sword in your dominant hand to make approach-related actions like stabbing your enemy, and use the shield in your nondominant hand to fend off attack,” he said. “Your dominant hand gets the thing you want and your nondominant hand pushes away the thing you don’t.”

The researchers theorized that approach and avoidance emotions are built on neural systems for approach and avoidance actions.

“If this sword and shield hypothesis is correct,” he said, “then three things should follow: Approach motivation should be mediated by the left hemisphere in strong right-handers, as it has been in tons of previous studies. But it should completely reverse in strong left-handers. For everyone in the middle of the handedness spectrum, approach emotions should depend on both hemispheres.”

Casasanto and Brookshire tested this idea by stimulating the two hemispheres of the brains of 25 healthy participants with a pain-free electrical current. The goal was to see if they could cause the participants to experience approach-related emotions – including enthusiasm, interest, strength, excitement, determination and alertness – depending on which hemisphere of the brain was stimulated and whether they were righties or lefties or somewhere in between. The study participants got zapped for 20 minutes a day for five days, and reported before and after the five days how strongly they were feeling emotions like pride and happiness.

The experiment worked – and corroborated the researchers’ first test of the sword and shield hypothesis using brain imaging. Strong righties who were zapped in the left hemisphere experienced a boost in positive emotions. So did strong lefties zapped in the right hemisphere. But when lefties are zapped in the left hemisphere – or righties in the right – “you see either no change or a detriment in the experience of these emotions,” Casasanto said.

The work has implications for a current treatment for recalcitrant anxiety and depression called neural therapy. Similar to the technique used in the study and approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it involves a mild electrical stimulation or a magnetic stimulation to the left side of the brain, to encourage approach-related emotions.

But Casasanto’s work suggests the treatment could be damaging for left-handed patients. Stimulation on the left would decrease life-affirming approach emotions. “If you give left-handers the standard treatment, you’re probably going to make them worse,” Casasanto said.

“And because many people are neither strongly right- nor left-handed, the stimulation won’t make any difference for them, because their approach emotions are distributed across both hemispheres,” he said.

“This suggests strong righties should get the normal treatment, but they make up only 50 percent of the population. Strong lefties should get the opposite treatment, and people in the middle shouldn’t get the treatment at all.”

However, Casasanto cautions that this research studied only healthy participants and more work is needed to extend these findings to a clinical setting.

The research was funded by a James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award and the National Science Foundation.

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Time, June 22, 2017

By Amanda MacMillan

Happiness isn't the only emotion that can help you stay healthy as you age. How excited, amused, proud, strong and cheerful you feel on a regular basis matters, too. In a new study, people who experienced the widest range of positive emotions had the lowest levels of inflammation throughout their bodies. Lower inflammation may translate to a reduced risk of diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Past research has shown that positive emotions may have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, but the new study, published in the journal Emotion, looks at whether the range and variety of those feelings play a role as well. Evolution suggests that they would; drawing on the evolutionary advantages of ecosystems with plenty of biodiversity, researchers from the United States and Germany wondered if similar perks may exist for variety within the human emotional experience. Such a range may improve physical and mental health by “preventing an overabundance or prolonging of any one emotion from dominating an individuals’ emotional life," they write.

The researchers asked 175 middle-age adults to keep a daily log of their emotional experiences for a month by recording how often and how strongly they experienced each of 32 different emotions: 16 positive (like being enthusiastic, interested and at ease) and 16 negative (such as being scared, upset, jittery and tired). Six months later, scientists tested their blood samples for markers of systemic inflammation, a known risk factor for many chronic health conditions and for early death.

Anthony Ong

Overall, people who reported a wide range of positive emotions on a day-to-day basis had less inflammation than people who reported a smaller range—even if their overall frequencies of positive emotions were similar. That was true even after researchers controlled for traits like extraversion and neuroticism, body mass index, medication use, medical conditions and demographics. (Surprisingly, a similar effect was not observed for the other end of the spectrum. It didn't seem to matter for inflammation whether people regularly experienced many or only a few variations of negative emotions.)

Lead author Anthony Ong, professor of human development at Cornell University, suspects that people may be able to maximize these benefits by more closely examining their emotions. “When it comes to infusing more diverse positive emotions into our lives, it may turn out to be a simple daily practice of labeling and categorizing positive emotions in discrete terms,” he says. “Pay attention to your inner emotions and be able to mentally recognize situations that make you feel calm versus, say, excited.”

The American Psychological Association (APA) offers a 6-credit continuing education course based on the book, Emotion, Aging and Health by Anthony Ong and Corinna Loeckenhoff.

Although older adults face significant health challenges, they tend to have better emotion regulation skills than younger or middle-age adults. Why is this so? And how might we use this knowledge to promote better health and well-being in adulthood and later life?

This book explores the reciprocal relations between aging and emotion, as well as applications for promoting mental and physical health across the lifespan. The authors discuss the neural and cognitive mechanisms behind age-related shifts in affective experience and processing.

In addition to presenting emotion regulation strategies for offsetting age-related declines in mental and physical functioning, the book examines the role of culture and motivation in shaping emotional experience across the lifespan, as well as the factors defining boundary conditions between human illness and human flourishing in old age.

By highlighting these major advances in interdisciplinary research, the authors suggest promising avenues for intervention.

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the reciprocal relations between aging and emotion.
  • Explain the neural and cognitive mechanisms behind age-related shifts in affective experience and processing.
  • Apply emotion regulation strategies to offset age-related declines in mental and physical functioning.

Emotion, Aging, and Health (Bronfenbrenner Series on the Ecology of Human Development) 

Edited by Anthony D. Ong and Corinna E. Löckenhoff

Although older adults face significant health challenges, they tend to have better emotion regulation skills than younger or middle-age adults. Why is this so? This book explores the reciprocal relations between aging and emotion, as well as applications for promoting mental and physical health across the lifespan. The authors discuss the neural and cognitive mechanisms behind age-related shifts in affective experience and processing. In addition to presenting emotion regulation strategies for offsetting age-related declines in mental and physical functioning, the book examines the role of culture and motivation in shaping emotional experience across the lifespan, as well as the factors defining boundary conditions between human illness and human flourishing in old age.

Adam Anderson, Human Neuroscience Institute, Cornell and Helen Irlen, Founder of the Irlen Institute

Adam Anderson, in Human Development's Human Neuroscience Institute, has received a grant from the Irlen Syndrome Foundation for an fMRI project being conducted at the Cornell MRI Facility on the relationship between color processing and other cognitive processes in the brain. Helen Irlen, founder of the Irlen Institute, identified a perceptual processing impairment, now referred to as Irlen Syndrome, which affects the brain's ability to process specific wavelengths of light. Below is a reprint of Dr. Anderson's blog entry on the Irlen Syndrome Foundation website.

“Color alters brain activity in ways that extend well beyond color perception to influence brain regions supporting perception, thought, language, and emotion.”

Study #1: How Color Affects Brain Activity

We have just finished our first study on color and brain activity. In our efforts to understand the role of color on brain function, we examined how different colors influence brain activity patterns. Well beyond color perception, we found colors have distinct roles not only in altering visual system activity, including the primary visual cortex and the thalamus, but also higher level regions including the parahippocampal gyrus (involved in representing the environment) and the middle temporal gyrus (involved in language processing and motion perception).  We also found colors influence limbic regions involved in emotions and feelings, including the anterior insula (emotional body states) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA, a region that produces Dopamine, a neurochemical that influences reward processing and cognition throughout the cortex).  In sum, color alters brain activity in ways that extend well beyond color perception to influence brain regions supporting perception, thought, language and emotion. Although preliminary, such results provide foundational support for color filters as means to alter brain activity patterns in focal brain regions, and the functions these regions support. These results lay the foundational neuroscience groundwork for future studies looking specifically at Irlen Spectral Filters.

Study #2: How Color Influences Perception, Cognition, and Emotion: Irlen as a Brain-Based Condition

In our current study, we are building upon our earlier findings and undertaking more focused examinations of the influence of color on how information from the eye is represented in the brain, and the transmission of that information to the higher order portions of the brain that support perception, cognition (e.g., language and thought), and emotion. This study also assesses how colors influence brain activity to alter performance on tasks, including perceptual, cognitive and affective judgments. Results from this research will shed light on the neural mechanisms by which color can modulate brain activity and alter brain function.  This study also examines the presence of Irlen Syndrome symptoms in the population at large, their neural bases, and whether these patterns of neural dysregulation are altered by color.  These findings should help establish how, rather than a retinal visual disorder, Irlen Syndrome arises from dysregulated brain networks, with different brain regions supporting specific symptoms.

Dear Readers


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A sliced section of a human brain is displayed for a photograph at the Radiology Imaging Laboratory of The Brain Observatory at the University of California San Diego (USCD) in San Diego, California. Photographer: David Paul Morris/The Brain Observatory/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Dr Kevin Fong and Nathalie Nahai talk to historian Richard Firth-Godbehere, neuroscientist Adam Anderson at Cornell University and sociologist Doug Masseyfrom Princeton University to explore how different disciplines have approached the science of emotions.

There’s the evolutionary theory, the internal theory looking at the physiological and cognitive side, and also cultural and social factors that have an impact on how we understand feelings. But first they’ll have to pin down a useful definition of what an emotion actually is …

By H. Roger Segelken

Republished from Cornell Chronicle, April 25, 2016

Ong & Loeckenhoff

Human development professors Anthony Ong and Corinna Loeckenoff. Jason Koski/University Photography

New approaches to understanding physical and psychological changes in old age – differences in personality, for instance, or responses to stressful events and the role of positive emotions in promoting well-being – are presented in a new book co-edited by Cornell human development professors Anthony Ongand Corinna Loeckenhoff.

Emotion, Aging, and Health” presents selected concepts from the Fourth Biennial Urie Bronfenbrenner Conference on New Developments in Aging, Emotion and Health hosted on campus in 2013 by Loeckenhoff and Ong.

“We’re only beginning to understand the complex interplay between emotional experiences and physical health across the adult life span,” said Loeckenhoff. “One of the most important developments in recent years is this: We can finally draw connections between subjective emotional experience, patterns of brain activation, and biomarkers of chronic stress.”

Loeckenhoff said science has been “so focused on understanding emotion as a marker of mental health that we have overlooked its implications for physical health. Especially in later life, emotional responses can buffer the adverse effects of physical conditions; but they (emotional responses) can also be a risk factor for adverse health outcomes.”

Ong said the publication “provides a state-of-the art overview of methods and approaches associated with the study of emotional aging and health. The chapters, written by leading researchers in the field, discuss topics such as emotion regulation, cross-cultural research, healthy aging and interventions.” He hopes some of the questions raised will stimulate future investigation, and that the new volume will help students and scholars “gain a working understanding of research approaches and key issues at the intersection of emotion, aging and health.”

emotion book

Conference presenters – mainly psychologists and experts in human development – came from an international cross-section of institutions: Cornell, Harvard, Northeastern and Stanford universities and the University of California, among others, as well as Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

Previous topics for the conference-and-publication series honoring Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005), the longtime Cornell professor of human development and of psychology, included “Chaos and Its Influence on Children’s Development” and “The Neuroscience of Risky Decision Making.” A founder of the national Head Start program, Bronfenbrenner joined the Cornell faculty in 1948. The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR) in the College of Human Ecology honors his vision to join science and service.

Writing the volume’s foreword, gerontologist Karl Pillemer, Cornell’s Hazel E. Reed Professor of Human Development and BCTR director, imagines the book would please Bronfenbrenner. “As a translational researcher before the name existed, he would embrace the themes of development and plasticity in later life, the importance given to social and cultural factors in understanding emotions, and the commitment to applying these scientific insights in creating an optimal world in which to grow old.”

H. Roger Segelken is a freelance writer.