The Royal Society

Neuroscience of Emotion

Posted by on 9 July 2011

By Georgia Lockwood Estrin, digital volunteer at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

‘The purpose of novels is to explore the human condition – and science is parallel to this.’ Words by author Ian McEwan encompass the essence of the first event at The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition: collaboration between the sciences and the arts in the topic of Emotion. Neuroscience of Emotion was discussed by novelists, art historians and scientists; and it became clear that to understand the complexity of human emotion fully, the study of the arts as well as the sciences must come in to play.

And so, what is emotion? Is it a product of evolution – handed down to us by our ancestors through the process of natural selection? Or perhaps it is just our mental response to a physiological behaviour – where our mind perceives an increased heart beat and we therefore feel the sensation of fear? A recent study built on this idea, investigating women who have undergone Botox treatment, and it suggested that the associated increase in their quality of life might be due to their inability to frown, and therefore the potential loss of the feeling of sorrow. Alternatively – as wittingly interjected by neuroscientist Professor Ray Dolan – it could simply be due to becoming more attractive.

Professor Dolan introduced the audience to the idea of a hierarchical system of emotions. He distinguished between low level emotions such as fear and disgust, and more complex emotions, such as regret and pride. These higher level emotions are driven by the goal directed system and are context dependent. Influences from individuals past come into play for these emotions, leading to the idea that ‘memories make us who we are.’ However, what if these memories are working to disrupt and destroy our lives? Dr Daniela Schiller insists that ‘memory is only as good as your last retrieval of it,’ and each time we retrieve a memory, it has the capacity to be changed and reconsolidated. This may provide an important opportunity to eradicate any disruptive memories linked to emotion. However, to be able to achieve this – first we need to understand more about the origin and development of emotions. With the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), areas in the brain involved in emotion can be visualised. Such regions include the amygdala – an area grotesquely described by Dr Schiller as being placed at the point where two pencils would meet if one were pushed through your eye, and the other was pushed through your ear into your brain. By looking at and investigating these regions of the brain, science is edging closer to an understanding of human emotion.

Whilst science can display images of the origin of emotion within the brain by using MRI, arts can evoke the sense of emotion in the eye of the beholder. To evoke these responses, artists have made use of the intrinsic knowledge that expression of emotion is accompanied by movement. Art historian, Professor David Freedberg, asked the audience to imagine a man standing, holding his arms in the air above him. This movement could suggest joy, or grief, or disgust – but only with the surrounding content of the image can we understand which of these he is feeling. Is there therefore a correlation between particular emotions and specific movements? Or instead, is this movement simply an expression of an excess of emotion?

The message from the event is clear – science can contribute to art, and certainly art can contribute to science; however, as neuroscience may struggle to evoke emotion, art seamlessly raises and directs these feelings; but science may discover the origins of emotion.

Here’s Professor David Freedberg and Professor Ray Dolan FRS to talk about their thoughts on the Neuroscience of Emotion