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Surprising connection between our emotions and our senses, study finds

The research explores whether our brains use specific sensory information or more abstract codes to process emotions.
The research explores whether our brains use specific sensory information or more abstract codes to process emotions. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)


A recent study published in Science Advances sheds light on the connection between our emotions and our senses.


Led by Italian neuroscientists from the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca and in collaboration with the University of Turin, the research explores whether our brains use specific sensory information or more abstract codes to process emotions.


 
 

"Emotion and perception are closely linked, but we've lacked a clear understanding of how the brain represents emotional experiences," explains Giada Lettieri, a psychology researcher at the IMT School and the study's lead author. "Our research aims to fill this gap by revealing how the brain organizes emotional information across different senses and past experiences."


Direct comparison between the categorical and dimensional encoding models and cross-decoding of emotion categories and valence ratings from brain activity.
Direct comparison between the categorical and dimensional encoding models and cross-decoding of emotion categories and valence ratings from brain activity. (CREDIT: Science Advances)


To investigate, the team showed the movie "101 Dalmatians" to 50 volunteers while monitoring their brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).


 
 

These volunteers included both individuals with typical sensory development and those who were congenitally blind or deaf. The blind participants experienced the movie through audio alone, while the deaf participants watched a silent version.


Additionally, 124 independent participants were asked to express and rate their emotions while watching the movie outside the scanner.


 

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"By including individuals with congenital sensory deprivation, such as blind and deaf individuals, we aimed to understand how sensory experiences influence the neural mechanisms behind emotions," says Luca Cecchetti, a researcher at the IMT School and the study's senior author.


"Our findings suggest that emotional categories are represented in the brain regardless of sensory experience or modality."


 
 

The study revealed a distributed network within the brain that encodes emotional experiences, spanning sensory, prefrontal, and temporal areas. Importantly, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex emerged as a key region for storing abstract representations of emotions, independent of sensory input.


Similarity in emotion ratings between modalities and their relation with affective norms.
Similarity in emotion ratings between modalities and their relation with affective norms. (CREDIT: Science Advances)


"These results indicate that our emotions are not solely determined by external sensory stimuli," Lettieri notes. "Even in the absence of sight or hearing, our brains are capable of generating emotional responses."


 
 

Understanding how the brain processes emotions without sensory input is crucial for advancing our knowledge of the human brain and enhancing support for sensory-deprived individuals.


Dissecting abstract, modality-specific and experience-dependent coding of affect in the human brain.
Dissecting abstract, modality-specific and experience-dependent coding of affect in the human brain. (CREDIT: Science Advances)


"In a world where sensory-deprived individuals are often overlooked, it's important to recognize the resilience and adaptability of the human brain," Lettieri emphasizes.


 
 

Funding: G.L. is supported by Marie Curie programme grant funding H2020, grant #101026032. M.D. is supported by a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant 2017 (LIGHTUP, project no. 772953). L.C. is supported by Next Generation EU, Ecosistema dell’Innovazione “THE–Tuscany Health Ecosystem”—code ECS00000017, and by PRIN 2022 - 2022CS3XR3_001 “Bittersweet, Ancient and Modern: Mixed Affect in Emotional Experience from Plato to Brain Imaging” funded by the European Union - Next Generation EU. F.S. is supported by PRIN 2017 “Social cognition in the blind brain”—protocol 201755TKFE_003 granted to P.P.






For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


 

Note: Materials provided above by the The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


 
 

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