From a neuroscientific perspective, that's an emotion
Functional magnetic resonance imaging is increasingly providing more insight into the work of the brain. Using this imaging process, scientists now also want to gain information about the regulation of emotions.
Representation of the different levels of observation of an fMRI recording. The colored areas mark an increased metabolism and thus a brain activity.
In the philosophical tradition of bygone eras, feelings did not play an essential role in relation to understanding and reason. Only recently, through experiments and findings in the neurosciences, has gradually gained acceptance that emotions are essential for thinking and decision-making processes and that knowledge and logical thinking alone are not enough to make good decisions. Above all, the advances in imaging processes, above all functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have made it possible to observe which regions of the brain are activated in which motor functions or mental and emotional processes and states.
As part of the interdisciplinary research project “animal emotionalale” (www.animal-emotionale.de), the role of emotions as a link between cognition and action is to be examined from a philosophical and neuroscientific perspective. The main idea here is the assumption that emotion and cognition necessarily require one another and that a consistently affective relationship to the world is indispensable for higher cognitive performance. The philosophical approach to this is thematized at the Institute for Cognitive Science at the University of Osnabrück in the project "Emotion and Relation to the World". med. Dr. phil. Henrik Walter this guiding principle is empirically investigated. In the sub-project “Emotional self-regulation and cognitive control”, the aim is to answer, among other things, the question of how emotional states that have once been evoked can be influenced by cognitive processes. The use of fMRI is used to investigate which factors enable emotional self-regulation, when this is helpful and to what extent the manner of regulation determines the emotional experience. For their fMRI studies, the team of neurologists and psychologists uses two MR tomographs in the neighboring MRT center of Life & Brain GmbH, a spin-off from Bonn University Hospital, among others. The powerful devices (1.5 Tesla and three Tesla) are available there exclusively for research purposes.
As a rule, 20 to 40 participants would be recruited for a scan study, and up to 80 test persons for genetic examinations, explains psychologist Dina Maria Schardt. As part of the project, she researches the neural basis as well as the behavioral and psychophysiological correlates of the regulation of negative emotions in particular, including their interaction with genetic disposition and gender. Depending on the examination, there are five to six hours of work per subject, of which around 2.5 hours are for performing the brain scans including preparation and follow-up questioning. Each participant receives an information sheet about the study as well as an fMRI questionnaire and has to sign a declaration of consent. If the test person also takes part in a genetic test, a separate declaration of consent is required. A maximum of eight test persons can be smuggled through the scanner per day.
For example, a test arrangement looks like the test person in the tube has to look at pictures with disgusting, terrifying or neutral motifs on a screen, a total of 96 pictures in four blocks of nine minutes each. Each recording is shown to him for around eight seconds. In front of each picture, the instruction: "Suppress feelings" or "Allow feelings" is displayed in a random order. Based on the local oxygen consumption of the neuronal cells, it is possible to calculate which regions of the brain are particularly activated (box). The electrodermal activity is measured as an additional variable, which reflects the subject's emotionally-related stress perception.
The main focus of the investigation is the amygdala as the central subcortical structure relevant to emotions and the prefrontal cortex as a region with an executive control function and direct neural connections to subcortical structures. In the two almond kernels as part of the limbic system, the sensory impressions are associated with feelings such as fear, anger or joy. Since it has been proven that the prefrontal cortex influences the function of the amygdala not only with expressly instructed, but also with intuitive, non-instructed emotion regulation, the functional connection between these two brain areas during the exercise of emotion-regulatory processes will be examined more closely. The research project has been funded by the VW Foundation as part of the “Key Topics in the Humanities” program since the end of 2005 for an initial period of three years.
Heike E. Kruger-Brand
* The third sub-project deals with “Emotions and social interaction in a neurobiology of morality”, that is, the question of the extent to which emotional and social factors contribute to moral decisions.
Magnetic resonance imaging
In magnetic resonance or nuclear spin tomography, the hydrogen atoms in the body are usually exposed to an extremely high magnetic field. This aligns the atomic nuclei in the body. They are unbalanced and rotated by short pulses of radio waves. The rotating cores act like small transmitting antennas and induce an electromagnetic current in coils close to the body, which can be measured. According to this principle, the tomograph also sends atomic nuclei in the brain in layers. The computer calculates a three-dimensional image from the slice images with the different signals.
Functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRI) adds a functional component to classic magnetic resonance tomography. With fMRI recordings, it is possible to visualize metabolic processes that arise due to activity and to calculate the location of the activity. The method is based on the fact that activated cortical areas consume more oxygen and blood and this can be seen on the calculated images.
It must be noted critically about fMRI that brain activity is only measured indirectly (via the metabolism of neural activity), that the measurement method used in fMRI is imprecise and that many areas of the brain have not yet been adequately researched or have complex functions.
Brain research: seeing where you feel
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