Mapping Happiness (& other emotions) in the Brain

By | September 19, 2016

Happiness really is a state of mind, based on results from a recent brain imaging study led by a cognitive neuroscience lab at Duke University.

The LaBar lab research project, published in the journal PLOS Biology, shows how distinct emotional brain states can emerge and then change character, especially when people let their mind wander, rather than focus on a specific task.

This “state of mind” paradigm then begins to look like flickering lights in the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan of subject’s brains, where distinct patterns correspond to easily identifiable emotions like amusement, surprise, contentment, fear, and anger:


The Brain Biomarkers of Emotions

This technology isn’t mind reading, but it can provide an accurate reading of emotional states.
Practical uses include evaluating and diagnosing a number of cognitive or mental health issues such as autism and major depression. From the research report:

We found that individual differences in mood states and personality traits are associated with the relative incidence of brain states associated with fear, anger, and sadness. These findings further establish the construct validity of our brain-based models of emotion and link subfacets of Neuroticism to the expression of emotion-specific brain systems. Given their sensitivity to individual differences linked to the symptomology of anxiety and depression, spontaneous emotional brain states may serve as a novel diagnostic tool to determine susceptibility to affective illness or as an outcome measure for clinical interventions aimed at reducing the spontaneous elicitation of specific emotions.

Translation to normal English: “This research tool could be really useful for psychologists and other mental health professionals.”

The Duke University research adds to related research from Japan that there are some identifiable “happiness centers” in the brain, and that structured meditation can positively (and physically) change and strengthen connections in the brain.