is the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion
. This interdisciplinary field combines neuroscience
with the psychological study
, and mood
Brain areas related to emotion
Emotions are thought to be related to activity in brain areas that direct our attention, motivate our behavior, and determine the significance of what is going on around us. Pioneering work by Broca (1878), Papez (1937), and MacLean (1952) suggested that emotion is related to a group of structures in the center of the brain called the limbic system, which includes the hypothalamus, cingulate cortex, hippocampi, and other structures. More recent research has shown that some of these limbic structures are not as directly related to emotion as others, while some non-limbic structures have been found to be of greater emotional relevance. The following brain structures are currently thought to be most involved in emotion:
- Amygdala — The amygdalae are two small, round structures located anterior to the hippocampi near the temporal poles. The amygdalae are involved in detecting and learning what parts of our surroundings are important and have emotional significance. They are critical for the production of emotion, and may be particularly so for negative emotions, especially fear.
- Prefrontal cortex — The term prefrontal cortex refers to the very front of the brain, behind the forehead and above the eyes. It appears to play a critical role in the regulation of emotion and behavior by anticipating the consequences of our actions. The prefrontal cortex may play an important role in delayed gratification by maintaining emotions over time and organizing behavior toward specific goals.
- Anterior cingulate — The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is located in the middle of the brain, just behind the prefrontal cortex. The ACC is thought to play a central role in attention, and may be particularly important with regard to conscious, subjective emotional awareness. This region of the brain may also play an important role in the initiation of motivated behavior.
- Ventral striatum — The ventral striatum is a group of subcortical structures thought to play an important role in emotion and behavior. One part of the ventral striatum called the nucleus accumbens is thought to be involved in the experience of goal-directed positive emotion. Individuals with addictions experience increased activity in this area when they encounter the object of their addiction.
- Insula — The insular cortex is thought to play a critical role in the bodily experience of emotion, as it is connected to other brain structures that regulate the body’s autonomic functions (heart rate, breathing, digestion, etc.). This region also processes taste information and is thought to play an important role in experiencing the emotion of disgust.
Relationship to cognitive neuroscience
In its broadest sense, cognition refers to all mental processes. However, the study of cognition has historically excluded emotion and focused on non-emotional processes (e.g. memory, attention, perception, action, problem solving and mental imagery). As a result, the study of the neural basis of non-emotional and emotional processes emerged as two separate fields: cognitive neuroscience and affective neuroscience. The distinction between non-emotional and emotional processes is now thought to be largely artificial, as the two types of processes often involve overlapping neural and mental mechanisms. Thus, when cognition is taken at its broadest definition, affective neuroscience could also be called the cognitive neuroscience of emotion.
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