Scenarios imagined during our fMRI study

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Chapter 4 endnote 33, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

We asked test subjects to imagine some scenarios we provided while we observed their brain activity using fMRI scanning.[1]

Two examples of these scenarios are:

“You slip away to take a midnight swim in the ocean. Because there is no moon, you can barely see the black water that stretches in all directions around you. A fin rises from the water beside you. You feel a huge fish brush against your body. You start swimming toward shore slowly, trying not to attract further attention. You feel your body gliding through the water as you try not to panic.”

“You’re at a dinner party with friends. A debate about a contentious issue arises that gets everyone at the table talking. You alone bravely defend the unpopular view. Your comments are met with sudden, uncomfortable silence. Your friends are looking down at their plates, avoiding eye contact with you. Your feel your chest tighten.”

As our volunteers constructed each scenario using simulation, neural activity increased in their somatosensory cortex and motor cortex (even while they lay perfectly still), visual cortex (even with their eyes closed). When the scenarios included descriptions of interoceptive sensations, so that test subjects simulated them, neural activity increased in primary interoceptive cortex, meaning that the brain was representing sensory changes in the body’s inner systems. And neural activity also increased in the thalamus, as well as in the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the subcortical nuclei that regulate the autonomic nervous system immune system, and metabolic systems. 

All this, just from simulating (a.k.a., imagining). 


Notes on the Notes

  1. Wilson-Mendenhall, Christine. D., Lisa Feldman Barrett, and Lawrence W. Barsalou. 2013. "Situating emotional experience". Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7: 1-16.