How does your brain process emotions?

The answer could help address the loneliness epidemic.


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In a study that involved 147 participants, ages 18 to 85, scientists aimed to understand how loneliness and wisdom relate to emotional biases. They were interested in knowing our responses to different positive and negative emotions.

It is well known that loneliness is associated with considerable physical and mental health risks and increased mortality. Various studies have shed light on it- showing that wisdom could serve as a protective factor against loneliness.

The new study conducted by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine shows specific brain regions that respond to emotional stimuli related to loneliness and wisdom in opposing ways.

In the study, participants were asked to perform a simple cognitive task of determining which direction an arrow was pointed while faces with different emotions were presented in the background.

Jyoti Mishra, Ph.D., senior author of the study, director of the NEATLabs, said, “We found that when faces emoting anger were presented as distractors, they significantly slowed simple cognitive responses in lonelier individuals. This meant that lonelier individuals paid more attention to threatening stimuli, such as the angry faces.”

“For wisdom, on the other hand, we found a significant positive relationship for response speeds when faces with happy emotions were shown, specifically individuals who displayed wiser traits, such as empathy, had speedier responses in the presence of happy stimuli.”

Source models of electroencephalographic data ((EEG)-based brain recordings) showed that loneliness was specifically associated with enhanced angry stimulus-driven theta activity in the left transverse temporal region of interest, which is located in the area of the temporoparietal junction (TPJ). At the same time, wisdom was explicitly related to increased TPJ theta activity during happy stimulus processing.

TPJ is essential for processing theory of mind, or the degree of capacity for empathy and others’ understanding. The study found it more active in angry emotions for lonelier people and more active in happy feelings for wiser people.

Scientists also noted greater activity to threatening stimuli for lonelier individuals in the left superior parietal cortex, the brain region important for allocating attention. At the same time, wisdom was significantly related to enhanced happy emotion-driven activity in the brain’s left insula, responsible for social characteristics like empathy.

Study author Dilip V. Jeste, MD, senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine, said, “This study shows that the inverse relationship between loneliness and wisdom that we found in our previous clinical studies is at least partly embedded in neurobiology and is not merely a result of subjective biases.”

Mishra said“These findings are relevant to the mental and physical health of individuals because they give us an objective neurobiological handle on how lonelier or wiser people process information. Having biological markers that we can measure in the brain can help us develop effective treatments. Perhaps we can help answer the question, ‘Can you make a person wiser or less lonely?’ The answer could help mitigate the risk of loneliness.”

“Ultimately, we think these evidence-based cognitive brain markers are the key to developing better health care for the future that may address the loneliness epidemic.”

Other authors of the study are Gillian Grennan, Pragathi Priyadharsini Balasubramani, Fahad Alim, Mariam Zafar-Khan, UC San Diego; and Ellen Lee, Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System.

Journal Reference:

  1. Gillian Grennan et al. Cognitive and Neural Correlates of Loneliness and Wisdom during Emotional Bias. Cerebral Cortex, March 5, 2021; DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhab012