How do we experience emotions and what is affect anyway?

 

In brief

As a therapist, understanding the world of affective neuroscience offers tremendous benefits. This post delves into the neural mechanisms behind emotions and affect, providing valuable insights for therapeutic practice. By recognizing the distinction between affect (immediate responses) and emotions (complex experiences), we can gain a deeper understanding of our client’s emotional experience. Exploring the attention spotlight and the salience network reveals the relationship between emotions, affect and attention. Moreover, understanding the ability to control attention towards affect and emotions empowers therapists to help clients develop emotional regulation skills and enhance their well-being.
I hope reading this post may generate curiosity and raise awareness about the relevance of neuroscience in the field of psychotherapy, recognizing that many therapists may not be familiar with this connection.

Closer Look

The field of affective neuroscience studies the neural mechanisms underlying emotions, affect and the processes associated with them. In this context, I want to emphasize the distinction between affect and emotion, since they represent different aspects of the emotional experience.

Affect refers to the basic, automatic and immediate emotional response that arises in response to a stimulus or situation. It is often considered a preconscious, visceral [sensations of the body's internal organs] and nonverbal experience of sensation, which can encompass a wide range of valence (positive or negative) and arousal (level of activation). Affect is closely related to bodily sensations and can be thought of as a raw and primal emotional response that occurs before cognitive evaluation and conscious labeling of specific emotions. We feel the physical aspect through the sense / ability of introspection.

In the study of how the brain works, researchers in affective neuroscience have found that there are different types of brain activity associated with specific affects. One model of categorizing these affects is into groups such as seeking/desire, lust, fear, and anger. Another approach is to consider two dimensions called valence (positive or negative) and arousal (intensity). These different affects / dimensions (depending on which model) are linked to distinct networks of neurons. There is a lot of ongoing research happening in this field to further our understanding.

Emotion, on the other hand, involves a more complex and conscious experience, involving cognitive appraisal, subjective feelings, and conscious recognition of specific emotions (eg, fear, happiness, anger). Emotions are often associated with specific events or situations, and involve higher-level processing, such as interpreting, evaluating, and labeling the emotional experience.

Emotions are constructions of the world, not reactions to it.”

             Barrett L. F. (2017, p. 17)

The brain creates meaning by predicting and adjusting to incoming sensations. It categorizes these sensations based on past experiences and responses so that they are useful in a specific context and have meaning - we call these emotions. For example, when the brain uses past experiences of happiness to categorize and guide our actions based on predicted sensory information, we then perceive or experience happiness. If we want to get really accurate, our perception is also influenced by what we're currently doing and what we expect to do in the future. It's like a clever brain game called predictive coding, quite different from the old, traditional model of stimuli leading to thoughts and then immediate responses. But hold on tight, because maybe we'll dive deeper into this fascinating topic in a future post!

The emotion is similar to a colorful and rich story that we experience according to the information that reaches different areas of the brain through what is illuminated by the attention spotlight. It begins in the affect networks, but interpretations, connections and memories are added to it. Emotional experience includes words and affects our various behaviors.

Let's delve into the concept of attention, specifically when it comes to affect. We can associate this attention with a network known as the salience network. The salience network is a network of brain regions that allows us to identify important stimuli and directs our attention to them, playing a crucial role in filtering sensory information and focusing cognitive resources. It detects salient events and signals the brain's attention systems, influencing what captures our attention and shaping our cognitive and behavioral responses. The salience network is particularly important in the recognition and processing of emotions because it helps identify emotionally relevant stimuli. When we encounter an emotionally relevant stimulus, the salience network will activate and send signals to other brain regions involved in emotion processing, such as the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex may then regulate the emotion, such as inhibiting the amygdala response or creating a more adaptive response.

The salience network can be likened to a spotlight that illuminates the crucial information in our environment and the activated feelings within us through the affect networks. This attentional spotlight assists us in directing our focus towards the most relevant information, while the salience network ensures that the spotlight remains on the pertinent details. Our emotions also have an influence on the attentional spotlight. For instance, when experiencing happiness, we tend to concentrate more on positively valenced information, whereas sadness may direct our attention towards negatively valenced information.

However, if we lack the ability to voluntarily shift our attention, several outcomes may arise. Our attention might become excessively fixated on an affect network, intensifying the impact of affect and amplifying the emotional response. Alternatively, we may struggle to effectively process the information conveyed by the affect networks due to our inability to direct our attention towards our affect, resulting in a potential dampening of our overall emotional experience.

While affect, the core of our emotional experiences, is often considered automatic, non-conscious, we possess the capacity to exert control over the flexibility of our attention towards affect and the way we process and pay attention to our emotions. From a neurological perspective, this control is associated with the ability to modify the functional connectivity between the relevant neural networks involved in emotional processing. Through conscious effort and practice, we can shape and regulate our emotional experiences by modulating the connections between different brain regions involved in emotion regulation, such as the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and insula. This neuroplasticity allows us to develop greater self-awareness, emotional regulation skills, and the ability to navigate our emotions in a more adaptive and constructive manner. By actively engaging in strategies like mindfulness, cognitive reappraisal, or therapeutic interventions, we can influence the connectivity of these networks and enhance our control over our emotional responses, leading to improved well-being and emotional resilience.

 

Barrett L. F. (2017). The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 12(1), 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsw154

Barrett, L. F. (2020). Seven and a half lessons about the brain. Houghton Mifflin.

Pessoa, L. (2013). The cognitive-emotional brain: From interactions to integration. MIT press.

Posner, J., Russell, J. A., Gerber, A., Gorman, D., Colibazzi, T., Yu, S., Wang, Z., Kangarlu, A., Zhu, H., & Peterson, B. S. (2009). The neurophysiological bases of emotion: An fMRI study of the affective circumplex using emotion-denoting words. Human brain mapping, 30(3), 883–895. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.20553

Vuilleumier P. (2005). How brains beware: neural mechanisms of emotional attention. Trends in cognitive sciences, 9(12), 585–594. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2005.10.011

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