Explaining the role and purpose of emotions has been a human preoccupation since Plato and Aristotle. Now, brain imaging suggests the experience of strong emotions synchronizes brain activity between individuals, harmonizing communication and aiding behavioral transactions.
Over the course of time, it has become widely accepted that human emotions are highly contagious. For example, seeing someone smile often triggers a corresponding emotional response in the observer.
Experts believe that this synchronization of emotional states across individuals may sustain social interaction. That is, when all group members share a common emotional state, their brains and bodies process the environment in a similar fashion.
Finnish researchers at Aalto University and Turku PET Centre believe their research shows how experiencing strong emotions puts individuals in sync.
In the study, participants’ brain activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging while they were viewing short, pleasant, neutral and unpleasant movies.
Investigators discovered that feeling strong unpleasant emotions synchronized brain’s emotion processing networks in the frontal and midline regions. However, experiencing highly arousing events synchronized activity in the networks supporting vision, attention and sense of touch.
Researchers believe this shows that sharing others’ emotional states provides individuals with a somatosensory and neural framework that helps individuals understand others. That is, the neural cues help people understand others’ intentions and actions and allow a person to “tune in” with them.
Such automatic tuning facilitates social interaction and group processes, said psychologist Dr. Lauri Nummenmaa from Aalto University.
The results have major implications for current neural models of human emotions and group behavior, but also deepen our understanding of mental disorders involving abnormal socioemotional processing, Nummenmaa said.