Israeli psychology researchers test how brain responds to emotions that deviate from social norms
There is a common notion that emotions are very subjective, so one can’t say if they are true or false. For example, suppose you are angry, but your partner or friend tells you: “You have nothing to be angry about!”
On the other hand, we may judge others’ emotional responses as disproportionate – such as fearing a little puppy – out of place, inappropriate or as lacking sensitivity. Is this reflected at the behavioral or brain level?
Psychologists and brain scientists at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev in Beersheba decided to test how our brain’s response to “incorrect” emotions is similar to errors made on perceptual tasks that are felt by the senses, such as what you actually see, hear or touch.
Their findings were published recently under the title “Can Feelings “Feel” Wrong? Similarities Between Counter-Normative Emotion Reports and Perceptual Errors” in the prestigious Psychological Science, which is among the highest ranked journals in the field.
This phenomenon of one’s emotion experience affecting others is so basic to human emotions that it is already evident in year-old babies. As we communicate our emotion experiences to ourselves and others, the quality and appropriateness of the emotion experience becomes crucial, the researchers wrote. “To our knowledge, the appropriateness or correctness of emotion experience is rarely discussed in [scientific] literature.”
One exception can be found in theories of emotion that suggest that an emotional experience is elicited by giving an assessment of it. This implies that one can assign a truth value to appraisals connected to emotions and ultimately to the emotional experience itself. An incorrect appraisal can arise from false information or a wrong evaluation of the situation. Just as it is wrong to experience the moon as red because it is not really red, it is wrong to fear a puppy, which is should not make people feel afraid.
The researchers ran a series of experiments that had been carried out previously, but this time they assessed emotion responses. In some of the experiments, 145 participants – all of them BGU students – were asked to assess whether a photograph that elicited emotions felt pleasant or unpleasant. They also performed a perceptual task in which they reported whether a photo showed a man or a woman.
The researchers, doctoral students Ella Givon and Gal Udelsman-Danieli who worked under the supervision of Prof. Nachshon Meiran of the psychology department, discovered that the brain treats a response that is not “normal” to the photos that elicited emotions just like it would in reacting to an error in the gender-perception task. For example, the cognitive-brain response associated with feeling pleasantness in response to a photo that is judged by most people as unpleasant resembled the cognitive-brain response of errors that were made in the gender-decision task.
In other words, the brain does seem to treat some emotions as wrong and reacts as if there was an error. “These results challenge accepted understandings of our emotions,” declared Givon. While we may believe that emotions cannot be wrong, our brain and cognition treat them as erroneous.”
“These findings are surprising given that most people believe that emotions lack truth value because of their deeply subjective nature. Considering that emotional feelings are tightly coupled with attributions and play a central communicative role, the findings may not be so surprising after all,” the team concluded.
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