Neuroscientist Adam Anderson of the Cornell University has found new insights on how the human brain symbolizes one’s innermost feelings—though subjective and personal—and that is by turning these into a standard code that represents emotions objectively across various senses, people and situations.
The new findings in his study, “Population coding of affect across stimuli, modalities and individuals,” overturn the age-old view that emotions are represented in human brain by plain activation in specific regions for negative or positive feelings.
“We discovered that fine-grained patterns of neural activity within the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with emotional processing, act as a neural code which captures an individual’s subjective feeling,” Anderson, senior author of said study and associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell, reveals in a statement.
Anderson elaborates that if people get the same pleasure from sipping wine or watching sunsets, it is because people share the same “fine-grained patterns of activity in the orbitofrontal cortex,” as indicated in his study.
“It appears that the human brain generates a special code for the entire valence spectrum of pleasant-to-unpleasant, good-to-bad feelings, which can be read like a ‘neural valence meter’ in which the leaning of a population of neurons in one direction equals positive feeling and the leaning in the other direction equals negative feeling,” says Anderson.
Initially, researchers showed a series of tastes and pictures to participants during functional neuroimaging and asked them to rate it. Researchers then examined the ratings of these participants’ subjective experiences, together with their brain activation patterns.
Through this, the researchers discovered that “valence was represented as sensory-specific patterns or codes in areas of the brain associated with vision and taste, as well as sensory-independent codes in the orbitofrontal cortices (OFC).” This suggested that the representation of man’s internal subjective experiences is not enclosed to particular emotional centers, rather it “may be central to perception of sensory experience.”
Anderson and his team also learned that the same subjective feelings, whether from the tongue or eye, led to a similar activity pattern in the OFC. This also suggested that human brain has an emotion code that is common throughout distinctive experiences of displeasure or pleasure.
The activity patterns of OFC for both negative and positive experiences were somewhat shared among people, the study found.
“Despite how personal our feelings feel, the evidence suggests our brains use a standard code to speak the same emotional language,” Anderson says.
The study was published online in the Nature Neuroscience journal.