How Our Mind Processes Emotion May Depend on our Body, Research Finds

By Sharon Moore on April 10, 2013

While neural activity in the brain has always been the focus of research when understanding how the mind processes emotions, a growing body of research also gives credits to the role of some other organs in the body, including the heart.

For the study, British researchers invited 20 healthy individuals to undergo a task that will measure their fear responses in relation with the activities of their heart. Participants were hooked up to heart monitors that were connected to computers. Then, images of fearful faces were shown on the computers. Heart monitors were able to track and time the presentation of the faces with specific points in the heart’s activity cycle.

The Heart Has the Ability to Perceive Fear

The researchers found that when the images were shown while the heart is pumping (systole), participants tend to judge the fearful image as more intense than when it was shown while the heart is at rest (diastole). The research team, headed by Dr Sarah Garfinkel, a postdoctoral fellow at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School in Brighton, also used an MRI scanner to look at the neural activity underlying such effect, particularly the activities in the amygdala. They found that the amygdala influences how the hear changes its perception on fear.

Another important finding was that the way the heart perceives pain is also influenced by how anxious a person is. According to Dr Garfinkel, not only does anxiety changes the extent of which the heart could perceive fear but also alters the neural circuitry underlying heart modulation of emotion. She said their findings might have the potential to help individuals who are suffering from anxiety problems and related conditions, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In future research, the team hopes to explore the therapeutic implications of their findings in people with high levels of anxiety. During her presentation at British Neuroscience Association Festival of Neuroscience in London last Monday, Dr Garfinkel emphasised that anxiety disorders can be debilitating and are very prevalent in UK and in other places. She hopes that by understanding how the mind and body process emotions on fear and how it can be reduced, they can develop better treatments for patients, including war veterans who are more likely to experience PTSD.  Dr Garfinkel also stressed the importance of meditation in managing fear responses. According to her, work that integrates the brain, body and mind to understand changes in emotion may help explain why meditation and other mindfulness practises have calming effects.

Somatosensory Cortex and Emotion Processing

In another study headed by Dr Alejandra Sel, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at City University in London, researchers examined the part of the brain that is activated when individuals observe emotional expressions in faces of other people. They were referring to the somatosensory cortex which perceives bodily sensations, such as pain, touch, body temperature and the perception of the body’s place in space. She said in order to understand other’s emotions; people need to experience the same emotions in their body.

To determine whether the perceptions produced by the somatosensory cortex was simply a by-product of the way a person processes visual information or whether it reacts independently to emotions seen in others, the researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain activities of the participants when they are shown either an emotional or a neutral face. They found that there was an enhanced activity in the somatosensory cortex when the participants were shown fearful faces than neutral faces. Such activities were independent of any visual processes. She said their findings may serve as a starting point for developing successful therapies for people with problems recognising other’s emotions, such as those who have autism.


Source of this article:

How Our Bodies Interact With Our Minds in Response to Fear and Other Emotions

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