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The anatomy of human emotion 

The anatomy of human emotion
The anatomy of human emotion

R. J. Dolan

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date: 27 January 2022

Emotions, uniquely among mental states, are characterized by psychological and somatic referents. The former embody the subjectivity of all psychological states. The latter are evident in objectively measurable stereotyped behavioural patterns of facial expression, comportment, and states of autonomic arousal. These include unique patterns of response associated with discrete emotional states, as for example seen in the primary emotions of fear, anger, or disgust often thought of as emotion proper. Emotional states are also unique among psychological states in exerting global effects on virtually all aspects of cognition including attention, perception, and memory. Emotion also exerts biasing influences on high level cognition including the decision-making processes that guide extended behaviour. An informed neurobiological account of emotion needs to incorporate how these wide ranging effects are mediated. Although much of what we can infer about emotional processing in the human brain is derived from clinic-pathological correlations, the advent of high resolution, non-invasive functional neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) has greatly expanded this knowledge base. This is particularly the case for emotion, as opposed to other areas of cognition, where normative studies have provided a much richer account of the underlying neurobiology than that available on the basis of observations from pathology as in classical neuropsychology. Emotion has historically been considered to reflect the product of activity within the limbic system of the brain. The general utility of the concept of a limbic-based emotional system is limited by a lack of a consensus as to its precise anatomical extent and boundaries, coupled with knowledge that emotion-related brain activity is, to a considerable degree, configured by behavioural context. What this means is that brain regions engaged by, for example, an emotion of fear associated with seeing a snake can have both distinct and common features with an emotion of fear associated with a fearful recollection. Consequently, within this framework emotional states are not unique to any single brain region but are expressed in widespread patterns of brain activity, including activity within early sensory cortices, shaped by the emotion eliciting context. This perspective emphasizes a global propagation of emotional signals as opposed to a perspective of circumscribed limbic-mediated emotion-related activity.

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