Situating Emotion in the Brain’s Systems for Perception, Action, and Internal States

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lawrence Barsalou

Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology
Emory University

Discrete theories of emotion typically assume that dedicated neural circuits/modules originated in evolution to produce basic emotions in a relatively ballistic and rigid manner (e.g., fear, anger, disgust, sadness, happiness). Three neuroimaging experiments challenge this view. In Experiment 1, different neural circuits represented the same emotion in different situations (e.g., fear under threat of physical harm vs. social evaluation). In Experiment 2, different groups of participants learned to experience fear and anger either in physical harm or social evaluation situations, and later, when asked to anticipate these emotions, activated situated neural circuits. In Experiment 3, different populations (cancer survivors, experienced meditators, controls) activated different neural circuits in response to the same emotional situations. Consistent with constructivist theories of emotion, these results suggest that experiencing an emotion “soft assembles” relevant neural systems throughout the brain to produce emotion in the current situation. To the extent that the same areas are utilized across multiple instances of a common emotional situation, an entrenched pattern develops that functions as an emotion attractor on future occasions. These patterns can be viewed as situated conceptualizations that control emotion via their grounding in the brain’s systems for perception, action, and internal states.


If you would like to meet with the speaker, please click here to contact Anna Massey.