Unraveling the Biology of Emotions
Promising Research Emerging
Kalin and his staff at the HealthEmotions Research Institute have chosen to forgo the typical focus on negative emotions such as depression and emphasize the no-less-interesting or important positive emotions. This has led them to pursue a host of questions seldom unexamined by medical science. For example:
What exactly is happening in the brain to make activities we enjoy produce the warm glow of contentment? What makes some people more upbeat than others? What areas of the brain are important in controlling our desires to connect with one another?
“We are just beginning to discern what parts of the brain are responsible for certain positive emotions,” Kalin explained. “For example, we are finding that some of the newer, more recently evolved neural structures, such as the limbic system, play vital roles in emotional expression. At the same time, we’ve found that these limbic structures are controlled or modulated by other areas of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex. Our work for the near future is to determine how these and other areas of the brain actually function in human emotional response.”
Kalin’s colleague at the Institute, Richard Davidson, M.D., the William James and Vilas Research professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is at the forefront of the effort to better understand how the brain processes and expresses emotions.
Davidson, who heads up the Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Research at the Institute, has been studying how differences in the structure of the brain are related to the diverse ways individuals express positive emotional states. Much of his research utilizes modern imaging methods such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in the quest for better understanding of the relationship between the brain and emotions.
These imaging technologies allow researchers to search for patterns of common brain activity in individuals with similar emotional orientations. In particular, he and his team have been examining the brain function in people whom they characterize as having “approach-related positive emotion.”