What role does language play in emotion? New insights from a neuroimaging study.

Abstract

Background: What is an emotion? Some have suggested that emotions like feeling awe or excitement stem from innate ‘basic’ neural modules. An alternative perspective suggests that emotions are learned over time and facilitated by using language to help fashion otherwise loosely related patterns of physiology, behavior, and context into concepts. This view suggests that words and concepts may play a constitutive role for emotional experience. Methods: We tested whether emotion words play a constitutive role by priming participants (n=24) with emotion words (amused, awe or excited) prior to images that tended to evoke these emotions. The word-image pairings were manipulated to be either more coherent (providing increased conceptual coherence) or less coherent (requiring greater conceptual demand). æParticipants then rated how positive they felt in response to each image, and for a subset of participants (n=12) neural responses were measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Behavioral Results: Increasing conceptual demands resulted in reduced self-reported affective responses. Imaging Results: Increasing conceptual demands also lead to greater activation in regions associated with concept retrieval and also with regulation of body representations, including the right anterior insula and right lateral prefrontal cortex. Conclusion: The behavioral and neuroimaging findings suggest that emotion concepts play a constitutive role in shaping affective responses into emotions. These results support emerging constructivist models of mind-brain relationships, which suggest that mental states like emotions involve interactions between regions regulating the body and those involved in language and semantics.