Does labeling your feelings help regulate them?

Kristen Lindquist

One of the mainstays of psychotherapy is the idea that talking about your emotions—or even writing about them—can help you to regulate them. Mindfulness-based approaches from Buddhism offer similar outcomes—the idea is that if you are “mindful,” or aware, of your feelings, then they won’t seem as strong. Until recently, it was not well understood how, or even why, labeling your feelings worked to reduce them. In some ways, it seems too simple to be true. Yet growing evidence from neuroscience suggests that labeling your feelings is in fact a good idea; telling your kids (or your spouse) to “use their words” when they’re upset just might work.emotions_-_3

In a recent paper from my lab, my collaborators and I explored the neural mechanisms at play when people are prompted to label their emotions versus when they are not prompted to label their emotions. This paper was particularly powerful because it used meta-analysis to summarize the findings across 386 neuroimaging studies of emotion (for more on the neuroimaging of emotion, see our recent post). This means that we were able to say which brain regions were consistently more active across 386 studies when individuals were prompted to label their emotions versus were not prompted to label their emotions. In many cases, participants had no clue that labeling would have an effect on their emotions. In fact, most studies were not explicitly designed to even test this hypothesis, they just conveniently asked participants to label their feelings as part of their study design (to check that participants were in fact experiencing the desired emotions, to ensure that participants were paying attention, etc.). Thus, our paper offers a unique lens for examining whether drawing people’s attention to emotion labels alters their brain activity while they are experiencing emotions.

Our findings confirmed the idea that labeling helps regulate your emotions. We found that when labels were present—at any point—in an experiment (prior to experiencing emotions or during experiences of emotions), this was associated with more consistent increases in prefrontal and temporal regions of the brain during emotional feelings. Critically, these brain regions are responsible for retrieving concepts and elaborating on their meaning. Take a second and think about the concept of “anger”–what does it mean? What does it feel like? What happens when you’re angry? You’re activating these regions now. This means that merely seeing a word such as “anger,” “fear,” or “disgust” prior to viewing a negative image may cause your brain to start retrieving knowledge about specific emotions and to start categorizing what you’re feeling, putting your feelings of negativity into more specific words. Consistent with the idea that labeling your feelings reduces them, these regions are also known to be consistently involved in deliberate emotion regulation when people try to rethink, or “re-appraise” the meaning of their initial emotional responses to a situation (e.g., “maybe I don’t feel sad the new job didn’t work out, I feel relieved…”)

In contrast, when emotion words were not present in experiments and participants were just experiencing emotions unfettered, we found greater activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is well-known to show increased activation during emotions and may be particularly involved in intense or impactful experiences. We also know that the amygdala has increased activation to ambiguous stimuli and situations. Together, these findings suggest that when you’re not prompted to access emotion words prior to viewing a negative image, your feelings may be more intense and harder for you to understand. Consistent with this interpretation, other classic findings on emotion labeling demonstrate an interplay between prefrontal regions involved in representing words and the amygdala–greater increases in word-related regions result in greater decreases in the amygdala during emotional experiences.

Taken together, our findings begin to shine light on the neural basis of why putting feelings into words may work. Teaching people to become more mindful of their feelings, or to become better at labeling their feelings in nuanced ways (a facet of “emotionally intelligence”) may be a fruitful route for getting emotions under control. In fact, kids who “use their words” following emotional intelligence training do better at school and have more positive relationships with other kids and teachers. The next time you’re feeling bad, try labeling it. You might just feel better.


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Where in the brain are emotions?

Kristen Lindquist

This post is the latest in our Introduction to the Neuroscience of Emotion series. It discusses research using healthy human subjects and functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI for short) to understand the brain basis of emotions. In coming months, we’ll have posts about studying individuals and animals with brain lesions as well as other neuroscience tools.

According to Aristotle, emotions come from your heart. In his view, the brain is just a pile of meat that is used to cool the blood. We’ve learned a thing or two about the structure and function of anatomy since the time of Aristotle; almost everyone today agrees that emotions—and mental life, more generally—originate in the brain. But, the question that remains for modern neuroscientists is how this happens. Philosopher David Chalmers calls this “the hard problem” for a reason – understanding how the brain creates conscious experiences such as emotions is extremely challenging. Despite how hard this problem is, we’ve learned a lot over the past several decades about how the brain creates the mind, and in particular, how the brain creates our emotions.

One of the major focuses of my laboratory is to understand how emotions emerge from the complex firing of neurons across the brain. We typically study emotions in healthy adults, meaning that we’re interested in how emotions work when people are functioning optimally. Knowing how the brain creates emotions in healthy people helps scientists to begin to target what goes wrong when someone suffers from a mental disorder such as anxiety or depression. The majority of our research uses neuroimaging—or what is called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI for short). We use the same MRI machine that your doctor uses when she examines a tear in your knee, although we put people in the scanner head-first to examine their brain activity. This feat is accomplished via a fortunate property of the blood—it has different magnetic properties when it is carrying oxygen to your neurons v. when the neurons have used up all its oxygen; changes in how much oxygen are present in brain tissue can be detected by the MRI machine. Since “active” neurons need more oxygen, we can identify regions that are relatively more active during one mental event (e.g., feeling excited about an upcoming party) v. another (e.g., feeling neutral about making dinner tonight). In our studies, we ask people to experience certain emotions by showing them evocative images (e.g., a picture of a striking snake), having them recall emotional events (e.g., the death of a loved one), or even putting them in emotional situations (e.g., telling them they need to give a speech that we will evaluate) and examine which brain regions are more “active.” Decades of research have now examined this question and have revealed some interesting and surprising findings.

From Lindquist et al. (2012)

For a long time it was assumed that each emotion has its own neural real estate in the form of dedicated neural circuitry that is responsible for its creation. This can be seen in the belief that an emotion comes from certain brain area (e.g., the amygdala) or a network of areas in the evolutionarily “old” portion of the brain (e.g., a network in the brainstem and other regions below the evolutionarily “new” cortex). However, despite what many people (scientists and non-scientist alike) believe to be true, we do not find that there is one region or circuit for a given emotion (e.g., fear). One of our most comprehensive projects was a “meta-analysis” that summarized the findings of all of the existing fMRI studies to date. Our method was designed to reveal which brain regions were consistently active across different studies and types of emotion (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness) and which brain regions were specifically active during certain emotions (anger v. disgust v. fear v. happiness v. sadness). We found that much of the brain is consistently active when someone is “having an emotion”—not just the brainstem and subcortical regions (see figure above: regions in pink, orange and yellow represent regions that are consistently active across all studies of anger, disgust, fear, happiness and sadness). What was interesting about these consistently active regions was that they included brain areas that we know are involved in the types of “hot” body changes that accompany emotions (e.g., increases in heart rate, respiration, etc.), but they also included regions associated with the type of “cool” so-called cognitive functions aren’t generally associated with emotions such as attention, memories, and language. Each type of brain region was involved in all the emotions studied. Moreover, not a single brain region in our analysis was specific to any given emotion. For instance, the amygdala was not the brain basis of fear as is typically assumed (for another recent discussion from renowned neuroscientist Joe LeDoux see here). Instead, the amygdala was active across every type of emotion experience we looked at in our analysis (including fear but also anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness).


My latest research demonstrates that these brain regions are not just acting alone, but in concert with one another as parts of complex networks (see figure to the left for an image of what brain networks might look like–dots represent regions in the brain and lines represent connections between different regions). Take a minute and think about your social networks—you are probably part of several different social networks consisting of people who are connected by some function: you might have your work network, your family network, your neighborhood network, your exercise network, your school network, etc. Brain networks are just like this, except they are groups of brain regions working together to serve some function.

An emerging idea in neuroscience is that these groups of brain networks—what we call functional networks—are kind of like the basic “ingredients” of the brain. Just like ingredients in your pantry, they combine together to produce more complex products. Just as oil, flour, baking soda, and water can be combined to make cookies, pancakes, breads, etc. different brain networks supporting basic functions combine to create emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and all the mental stuff we experience on a day to day basis. We are finding that the particular combination of these network-based “ingredients” differs when you’re experiencing anger v. fear (see here), and even when you’re experiencing a thought v. an emotion (see here).

What’s compelling about these findings is that it appears that your emotions, and all your mental states for that matter, are created out of the same basic “ingredients” of the mind (for a more in-depth discussion, see here). These ingredients probably serve very basic functions such as activating your body for engaging in actions, representing your body changes as feelings, representing your past experiences in order to make meaning of the present, processing visual and auditory information from the world, and directing your attention to changes outside in the world or inside your body. The idea that your mental states are the complex products of basic “ingredients” is fundamentally different from the idea that each brain region serves its own special function for its own specific mental state. This new view also begins to chart a different path forward for understanding mental illness—a person with anxiety might not have something amiss with their “fear center,” but might instead have something wrong with a system that activates the body or a system that shifts attention (or both). We’re still just scratching the surface of how your brain creates emotions and fMRI offers only a single lens, but it’s already telling us important new things about how our brain creates our mental lives.


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Emotion News is back after summer hiatus

Kristen Lindquist

Emotion News took a bit of a summer vacation this year as our contributors submitted grants, wrote papers, collected new data, and availed themselves of some much needed R&R. Fortunately, while we were offline, emotions were still very much in the news. With the release of the Pixar movie Inside Out,  kids and parents everywhere were learning just how important understanding our emotions is to day to day life. Scientists also weighed in, both applauding and criticizing the movie for what they thought it got right and what it didn’t get right about emotions. We’re currently cultivating a series of future blog posts outlining how scientists differ in what they think emotions are, and why this matters. Stay tuned!

In the near term, we’re excited to bring you a whole new year’s worth of posts on the science of emotion. We look forward to hearing again from Daryl Cameron, Piercarlo Valdesolo, Lisa Williams, and Sherri Widen, as well as a new group of contributors who study the impact of emotions on decision making, in business, in health, and beyond. For instance, up next we will hear from Alex Shackman, who will share his research on the neurobiology of anxiety.

Readers, if you’d like to see a particular topic covered this year, please leave us a note in the comment section below.  Scientists, if you’d like to join us as a contributor, please email us and pitch a piece.  You can reach us at kristen.lindquist [at] unc [dot] edu and eblissmoreau [at] ucdavis [dot] edu.

Happy reading!

Kristen Lindquist & Eliza Bliss-Moreau



How to keep your New Year’s resolutions in 2015

Kristen Lindquist

Every year, as we finish a holiday season filled with festive libations, millions of people vow they’re going to get on the straight and narrow. We vow to get thinner, get healthier, spend less, and organize our lives in the coming year. Yet some estimates suggest that just 8% of us ultimately succeed in enacting these resolutions. The ardent pledges we make on December 31st very quickly recede into the background when the cookies, cigarettes, purchases, and distractions insidiously work their way back into our daily lives on January 1st and thereafter.

You might not be surprised that humans are so supremely terrible at controlling our own behavior–we’ve all experienced those moments when we said we weren’t going to engage in some behavior and then we do it again anyway. The problem is, we engage in those behaviors because they’re linked to rewards (sugar, nicotine, relaxation, fat, shiny new shoes, what have you), and our brains are programmed to want rewards in the here and now. This means that we not only need to pledge to get to the gym more, avoid drinking those extra beers, or incorporate more vegetables into our lives—we also need to enact those goals in daily life when the urge to sit on the couch, reach for a cold one, and order the fries rear their ugly heads. Not surprisingly, research shows that merely having an intention to do better doesn’t often translate into better behavior in the future (in one study, 47% of people who intended to engage in some goal never did).


Fortunately, there is hope for all of us who want to change this year. Self-control, or the ability to control your behavior, can be measured as a trait (much like other personality traits such as introversion, extraversion, agreeableness, etc.), and contrary to popular belief, people who enact their New Year’s Resolutions don’t just have Herculean self-control. Rather, people who score high in self-control actually report encountering problematic rewards less in daily life than do people who are low in self-control. This is likely because people high in self control set up their lives in a way that lets them avoid the strong lure of unwanted rewards (the cookies, beers, couches, and new shoes you’ve proclaimed you’ll avoid this year), well in advance of when those rewards are encountered. For instance, someone high in self-control who wants to drop a few pounds might do so by not keeping unhealthy foods in the house in the first place. People high in self-control seem to know that it’s relatively easy to avoid the cookie aisle when in the grocery store, but harder to avoid the cookies when they call from your pantry late at night. People high in self-control rarely find themselves eating a whole box of cookies at night because they’ve ensured that there are no cookies available to be eaten in the first place.

Research has also uncovered other means of helping people enact their goals. My colleague, Paschal Sheeran, is a health psychologist who studies how people’s “implementation intentions” can help them enact their health-related goals (like, eh hem, those goals you made for yourself around 11:59pm on Dec 31st). Implementation intentions involve making a simple “if-then” plan for your future behavior. Rather than just stating a goal, you come up with plans for achieving it that include information on when, where, and how you’ll enact that plan. For instance, rather than forming a general goal such as, “I won’t eat unhealthy foods this year,” you’d form a series of implementation intentions such as, “if they serve pizza at the office lunch, I’ll have only one piece,” or “if I make chicken nuggets for the kids, I’ll make myself a salad,” or “if they serve dessert at the party, I’ll have fruit instead of chocolate cake.” Just like the trick used by individuals high in self-control, the magic ingredient lies in making very specific plans for your behavior well in advance of being faced with a rewarding object. For instance, when staring down that extra slice of pizza at the office lunch, you don’t give the angel and devil sitting on your shoulders the opportunity to duke it out—you just automatically engage in the behavior you planned on—and take only one slice. By contrast, the traditional method of self-control asks you to hem and haw in the moment, trying to figure out a way to steer clear of that delicious, greasy pizza. By that point, the lure of the reward takes over, often even in those with Herculean strength of will. As simple as they seem, research shows that implementation intentions are quite effective—on average, using implementation intentions would make you about 3 times more effective at avoiding that extra slice of pizza.

So rather than just telling yourself that you’re going to lose weight this year, work out more, or make better financial decisions, set up your life in a way that makes it easier for you to avoid undesired rewards and make a set of clear implementation intentions for your behaviors. 2015 might just be the year that you enact your goals!


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Would an emotion by another name look the same?

Kristen Lindquist

In the blink of an eye, people see emotions unfold on others’ faces, and this allows them to successfully navigate the social world. For instance, when we see a scowl begin to unfold on a colleague’s face, we instantly understand the depth of his rage. A brief turn up of a friend’s lips transforms her face into the picture of happiness. Detecting a stranger’s widened eyes and a gaping mouth alerts us that something in the environment is not quite right. Indeed, most of us can see these emotions in the others around us with the greatest of ease, as if we are reading words on a page. The clear utility and ease of perceiving facial expressions of emotions has led many prominent researchers to conclude that information on the face is itself sufficient to automatically trigger a perception of “anger,” “happiness,” or “fear.” Yet growing research calls into question the idea that emotion perception proceeds in this simplistic and automatic manner.

My colleagues Lisa Feldman Barrett, Maria Gendron and I have been wondering for some time if emotion perception is perhaps not quite as simple as it seems. We’ve hypothesized that people actually learn to read emotions in other people over time, and that this process in part requires knowledge about different emotion concepts. The idea is, without knowing the word “anger,” you could never see a scowling person as angry. In a paper recently published in the journal Emotion, my co-authors and I tested this hypothesis in a rare group of patients who have a neurodegenerative disease called semantic dementia. Semantic dementia is caused when cells in areas of the brain that are critical to language die. As brain cells die, patients progressively become unable to understand the meaning of words and unable use words to categorize the world around them. We wondered if patients with this disorder would still be able to perceive specific emotions on faces, or whether their failure to use and understand the meaning of words would prevent them from understanding the specific meaning of emotional facial expressions.

To test this hypothesis, we gave three patients with semantic dementia a number of pictures of facial expressions and asked them to sort those facial expressions into as m490830281_a6da6da3fc_oany piles as they thought necessary. Notably, the task itself didn’t require words—patients weren’t required to match faces to words or to state words out loud or write down words to label the faces. Instead, patients could just freely sort the images into piles based on similarities in their appearances. Pictures included posed facial expressions of individuals who were scowling (angry), frowning (sad), wrinkling their noses up (disgusted), individuals with wide eyes (fearful), smiling (happy), and individuals who had relaxed, neutral facial muscles. We know that when healthy young adults perform a task like this, they produce roughly six piles for the six facial expressions in the set. Yet because semantic dementia typically impacts individuals who are 50+ years old, we first asked how a group of healthy older individuals performed on the facial expression picture sort task. Much like the younger adults, older adults created six or more piles to represent the six categories of facial expressions in the set of pictures. By contrast, when the patients with semantic dementia performed the sort task, they didn’t see the faces as instances of specific emotions. Instead, they sorted faces into piles of positive, negative and neutral expressions. As a testament to this fact, one patient attempted to label his piles (early on in the disorder, patients can still use some words, but increasingly lose the ability to do so over the course of their disease). This patient referred to his piles as people who felt “happy,” “rough” and “nothing.” These were the very few emotion words that the patient could still use, and he correspondingly sorted faces into piles that reflected these words. These findings suggest that without access to emotion words such as “anger,” “disgust,” “fear,” etc., individuals can only perceive the most basic of meaning in an emotional face—that is, whether the person is expressing something good, bad, or neutral.

These findings are consistent with some of our older research showing that temporarily impairing healthy young individuals’ access to the meaning of an emotion word impairs their ability to perceive emotion on faces. More broadly, our recent findings have implications for how scientists understand the nature of emotion perception. Rather than seeing emotion perception as a simplistic and automatic process that all individuals have the capacity to do, our findings underscore the importance of language in emotion perception. Our findings suggest that people with impaired language abilities, such as autistic individuals, might not only have problems with verbal communication, but also non-verbal communication. These findings suggest that counter-intuitively, an emotion by any other name might not look the same.

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