Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


brain-scan-study

(ILLUSTRATION: CARNEGIE MELLON UNIVERSITY)

Brain Activity Provides Window to the Emotions

• June 19, 2013 • 2:00 PM

(ILLUSTRATION: CARNEGIE MELLON UNIVERSITY)

Carnegie Mellon researchers have identified distinct patterns of brain activity linked to specific emotions.

We have all been reeling from recent news reports suggesting privacy is pretty much dead. But surely there’s one part of our lives we can keep to ourselves if we choose to do so: Our deepest, most personal emotions.

Actually, check that. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University announced today that they have come up with a technique that can identify the emotions you’re feeling by measuring brain activity.

“Despite manifest differences between people’s psychology, different people tend to neutrally encode emotions in remarkably similar ways.”

“Despite manifest differences between people’s psychology, different people tend to neutrally encode emotions in remarkably similar ways,” Amanda Markey, a co-author of the paper, told the university’s press office. The study has just been posted on the online journal PLOS ONE.

The research team, led by Karim Kassam, scanned the brains of 10 actors borrowed from Carnegie Mellon’s drama department. In a variation on the famous method acting technique, they were asked to repeatedly enter into nine emotional states, including anger, disgust, happiness, and lust. A computer model analyzed the patterns of brain activity produced by each emotion and attempted to identify the feeling they were experiencing.

Afterwards, still in the scanner, the actors looked at a series of photos, including some that elicited feelings of disgust. The idea was to see if the computer model could identify a subsequent strong feeling when it was instantaneously aroused.

The results were, if not perfect, impressive. “Specific emotions were identified on the basis of neural activation reliably,” the researchers write. The computer model did not correctly identified the emotion in question 100 percent of the time, but it did so a rate far better than random guessing.

Analyzing the brain scans of the actors while they viewed the disgusting photos, the model picked “disgust” (one of nine emotions it could choose from) 60 percent of the time. Even when it was in error, it wasn’t far off: “disgust” was one of its first two guesses 80 percent of the time.

The computer model was most accurate at identifying happiness, and least accurate when attempting to identify envy. As the Carnegie Mellon summary puts it:

It rarely confused positive and negative emotions, suggesting that these have distinct neural signatures. And it was least likely to misidentify lust as any other emotion, suggesting that lust produces a pattern of neural activity that is distinct from all other emotional experiences.

The researchers conclude their paper with a statement that, given recent revelations, sounds a bit more ominous than they presumably intended. They see “the possibility of producing a generative model that could predict an individual’s emotional response to an arbitrary stimulus (e.g. a flag, a brand name, or a political candidate),” they write.

While that would be enormously helpful to psychological researchers, the paranoid among us can ruminate about its possible use by marketing firms, or intelligence agencies. Interrogator to subject: “Sure, you say your feelings towards your country are only positive. But let’s see what your brain scan tells us.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.