Bipolar Disorder and the Balancing Act of Emotions

Jasmine Mote

The United States is a culture deeply invested in the pursuit of happiness. But what if feeling excited or ambitious could lead to devastating consequences, such as going bankrupt, hospitalization, or harming yourself?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness where people experience manic episodes, which for some are characterized by intense feelings of euphoria, pride, or excitement. In common parlance, people often use the terms “bipolar” or “manic” in a derogatory sense, to mean “crazy” (e.g., “She is totally bipolar”). But in reality, bipolar disorder is a serious psychiatric condition with specific symptoms surrounding waves of extreme positive emotion and waves of depression. You’d think that experiencing a lot of positive emotion would be a good thing, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.  Feeling too good can have negative consequences.

June Gruber at the University of Colorado, Boulder, among others, has shown that people with bipolar disorder experience more positive emotions and for a longer duration than people who do not, even if they are not experiencing a manic episode (for a review of this literature, go here). Manic episodes may also be characterized for others by intense feelings of irritability and general emotional instability. Overall, however, while manic episodes may feel good for some people, they also lead to an increase in engaging in risky behavior (such as reckless driving) and impulsivity, among other symptoms, and can damage interpersonal relationships, cause severe financial stress, or lead to suicide. Further, many people with bipolar disorder also experience depression between manic episodes, where they may feel sad, not enjoy things that they used to enjoy, find it hard to do everyday tasks, and also have thoughts of suicide.

Balancing ActBalancing emotions in bipolar disorder can be tricky when both feeling good and feeling bad have severe consequences, and some people may decide that it’s simply too risky to put themselves into situations that can cause too much happiness. Research has shown that some people with bipolar disorder try to reduce, or dampen, the positive emotions in their lives more than people without bipolar disorder. For example, they may try to not make a big deal out of positive experiences or avoid positive situations (such as pursuing romantic relationships) altogether to help them prevent a future manic episode. Such strategies lead people to report a lower quality of life and may ultimately put themselves at risk for depression.

So how can people with bipolar disorder stay healthy but also still experience the positive emotions that make life so enriching? As part of a team of researchers led by Sheri Johnson and Ann Kring at the University of California, Berkeley and Judy Moskowitz at Northwestern University, we are currently testing a group treatment intervention to increase healthy positive emotions in people with bipolar disorder. Based on Dr. Moskowitz’s work on interventions designed to increase positive emotion in other populations, such as in people with schizophrenia and people recently diagnosed with HIV, we have developed a 10-week group treatment intervention study called the Learning Affective Understanding for a Rich Emotional Life (LAUREL) Group. The group uses basic emotion research and teaches skills related to increasing positive emotions that have not been shown to significantly increase the risk of a manic episode, such as low activation positive emotions (e.g., calm, relaxation, serenity) and emotions focused on others (e.g., gratitude). Some examples of the skills we teach include emotion regulation strategies (e.g., changing the way we think to change the way we feel), mindfulness meditation, and self-compassion. The study is currently ongoing and we have already received a lot of positive feedback from previous group members. We hope that skills such as these can help people with bipolar disorder — in addition to their current treatments — navigate the balancing act of their emotions so that they can both stay healthy and feel good in their daily life.

Special thanks to Sheri Johnson, Ph.D., for her feedback on an earlier version of this post. 

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Can Disgust Be Anger for Kids?

Sherri Widen

Imagine you and a 2-year-old child are watching TV.  In the show, a man discovers that his soup contains sheep’s eyeballs.  You think to yourself, “Wow, that guy is really disgusted!”  The child says, “Wow, that guy is really mad!”  You are confident that, in fact, the guy is disgusted.  Does that mean that the child is wro2462987456_c9d17a5539_zng?  Most people assume that children and adults understand emotions in very similar ways.  But as this example shows, that may not be the case.

Although children begin using emotion words in conversation before the age of 2 and have a wide emotion vocabulary before the age of 5 years, studies of children’s use of emotion words find that they initially have two broad emotion categories: one for positive emotions and one for negative ones.  For example, 2-year-olds have been asked to say how people with different facial expressions feel.  The 2-year-olds used angry for facial expressions of anger, disgust, and sadness but not for facial expressions of happiness, surprise, or fear.  So, for young children, angry is a much broader category than it is for adults.  Older preschoolers are less likely to use angry for sadness facial expressions but it is not until children are at least 9 years old that they stop using angry for the disgust facial expression.

How do children go from two broad emotion categories (positive vs. negative) to more specific, adult-like categories?  In answering this question, it is helpful to think of emotions as “scripts” which include causes, consequences, and so on: for disgust, a person smells something foul (cause), wrinkles his or her nose (facial expression), covers his or her nose (behavior), and tries to get away from the source (consequence).  Which of these parts of the script might help children first understand that their broad negative emotion category is composed of distinct emotions?  From among all the causes, consequences, behaviors, etc., children need to notice that some things tend to co-occur.  For disgust, causes may provide that initial clue (eating or smelling something awful).  By 3 years, children know both the causes and words for disgust but it is not until they are much older that they connect the facial expression to the other parts of the disgust script.  In contrast, for sadness, by 4 years of age, children have connected the causes, consequences, facial expressions, and labels of the script.

As children move from preschool-aged to middle childhood, they learn about a wider variety of emotions, such as embarrassment, pride, and shame.  Just as younger children initially understand emotions like sadness, anger, and disgust in terms of positive vs. negative emotions, older children initially understand embarrassment, pride, and shame as a part of emotion categories that they already have.  Children (4-10 years) were asked to say how people felt when shown facial expression or told brief stories describing situations that cause these emotions.  Younger children labeled anger, contempt, disgust, and shame as angry and they labeled embarrassment as sad.  Gradually, children distinguished among the emotions and the oldest children used the expected label for all emotions (except contempt, which they labeled as angry).

So, when the 2-year-old in the sheep’s-eyeball-soup example we began with said that the man was angry, she was not wrong.  Within her understanding of emotions, the man was experiencing a negative emotion and her word for negative emotions is angry.  This response represents her current level of emotion understanding but it is also an opportunity for you to teach her something new – what disgust is.  A variety of school-based interventions work to explicitly teach children about emotions and to increase their emotion vocabulary and social skills.  Children are ready to learn about emotions and children who participate in these interventions develop stronger social and emotional skills and have improved grades than children who do not.

 Photo credit: Photo sourced from flickr via Creative Commons License

Emoting online – more than just smileys

Lisa Williams

Social media: love it or hate it, it’s here to stay. Speaking of love and hate, a surge of recent research has tackled core questions regarding emotional processes as they play out on social media.

How do we e-communicate our emotional states? Emoticons, and their more graphical cousins emoji, are one popular route. Since the 1980’s, online communicators have been using combinations of punctuation marks to convey sarcasm or a joking tone (e.g., “bugger off!” and “bugger off :-)” certainly convey different meanings). Recently, social psychologist Dacher Keltner teamed up with folks at Pixar to develop a ‘sticker’ set of animated emoji called Finch. Finches were designed to reflect the great variety of emotional experience that simply can’t be captured with semicolons, parentheses, and dashes, including love, sympathy, awe, jealousy, and embarrassment.

Not only are Finch emoji quite popular, analysis of their use presented by Dacher Keltner at the February meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology reveals fascinating trends around the world. Use of the ‘loving’ Finch is highly frequent in Russia and Mediterranean regions; use of the 93571524_43b1e4070f_o‘sympathetic’ Finch is highly frequent in Australia and the Americas. What can emotion communication tell us about a culture? Apparently, quite a bit.

Emotion communication in social media is of course not limited to emoticons and emoji. The words we use also convey how we felt about a past event, currently feel at the moment, or anticipate feeling in the future. Linguistic analysis of Facebook and Twitter posts reveals a great deal about users’ emotions. An intriguing interface at the World Wellbeing Project ( allows visitors to track word usage across age groups, including, but not limited to, words with emotional tone. Analyses are based on over 75,000 Facebook users. My own cursory analysis revealed that older users use ‘grateful’ more often and ‘angry’ less often than their younger counterparts. So, the informative nature of emotional e-communication isn’t just cultural – emotive language online varies according to age groups, genders, and personality traits.

It turns out that online emotive language is not just descriptive – it can serve as an indicator of a community’s level of wellbeing. Analysis of 148 million Twitter posts conducted by a team led by Johannes C. Eichstaedt revealed that communities whose residents tweet with angry language are communities high in risk for mortality from atherosclerotic heart disease. In fact, language on Twitter did a better job of predicting cardiac disease mortality than a set of 10 predictors including demographics (e.g., gender), socioeconomic variables (e.g., income), and health risk factors (e.g., smoking).

Complemented by findings that online emotions are ‘contagious,’ it becomes clear that emotional processes on social media are potent. Controversial Facebook experiment aside, the concept that emotions spread through social media networks has received robust empirical support. Analysis of 3.5 million Twitter-like posts from China (on Weibo) 5653817859_3567ac7c8f_orevealed that joy spreads quickly through the network, but is outpaced by anger. In another study conducted on millions of Facebook users, positive posts by one user increased positive posts by that user’s friends at a factor of 1.75 (and decreased negative posts at a factor of 1.80). The factor for one user’s negative posts increasing friends’ negative posts was 1.29 (and 1.26 for decreasing friends’ positive posts). Additional evidence for emotional contagion online comes from Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, who analyzed the viral nature of 7,000 New York Times online articles. Content that angered readers was more likely to be shared than those that saddened readers.

It’s not as dire as it may seem: in that latter study, NYT content that resulted in a sense of awe was also shared widely. Negativity is viral – but so two is positive content – especially that which ‘wows’ us.

This isn’t to say that we are passive users of social media, subject to the emotional whims of others. Indeed, we use social media as a forum for emotion regulation: research by Benjamin K. Johnson and Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick shows that, when in feeling a bit down, individuals seek out downward social comparisons to other social media users that might be worse off (apparently in an effort to feel better about ourselves).

The emotional tenor of online communication reveals a great deal about who we are as people, as cultures, and as humankind. Not only do we influence others, we are also influenced by the emotions we share via social media. Social scientists are just beginning to understand the emotion processes that play out in social media – we are at the exciting forefront of the era of ‘big data’.

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Introduction to the Neuroscience of Emotion Series

Eliza Bliss-Moreau

In the coming months, we will be posting a number of stories on the neurobiology of emotion. Understanding how the brain creates emotion has important consequences for everything from whom we charge with crimes (are crimes that occur due to a brain disorder that changes emotions different from those that are not?) to how we treat depression (is using chemicals that effect the brain a better option than talk therapy?) to the ethics associated with meat production (if pigs have brains capable of emotions, does that change how we treat them as we turn them into meat?).

As neuroscientists in the 21st century, we are equipped with powerful tools to ask questions about emotion. Modern neuroscience techniques are comparable to the methods detailed in science fiction decades ago—we can “see” into the brain of a normal person while they are in a MRI scanner experiencing emotions; we can turn on and off areas of animal brains with a beam of light; we can record activity of single cells in the brain of animals and nerves throughout the body.  The experiments that use these tools and the data that are produced by these tools are complex and often indirect measures of brain function and the emotion produced by brain activity.  Their portrayal in the modern media often does not do justice to their complexity.

Over a series of posts, we’ll explain how different neuroscience methods actually work, how they are used to study emotion, and what the take home messages are about how the brain creates emotions.  We hope to paint a picture of how exciting and challenging research on the brain basis of emotion is, how powerful our existing tools are, and how much we still have to learn.

Neuroscience stories about emotion make the national and international news frequently these days (like this, this, and this, for example). With the abundance of these stories, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that we had very limited tools to study the brain in a living, breathing person or nonhuman animal. [In later posts, we’ll talk about what we’ve learned about emotion from brains that are not in living beings.] Prior to the advent of neuroimaging technology which lets us measure activity in the brain (either electrical activity, blood flow, or the movement of chemicals), most studies of human emotion occurred when people incurred brain damage.

Perhaps the most famous case of accidental brain damage interfering with emotion, is the case of Phineas Gage. Phineas Gage was a railroad worker born in the 1820s.  In 1848, he was working to build a railroad in Vermont when a terrible accident occurred.   He was using a long metal rod and blasting powder to blast rock away at the site.  During one of the blasts, he lost control of the rod and it flew through his head.   The metal rod entered his skull under his left eye and exited out of the top of his head, damaging a large area of frontal cortex in the process (see).  Surprisingly, Gage lived.  But he was never the same again.  Prior to the accident, he was a responsible, upstanding guy.  After the accident he was said to be vulgar, unable to control his behavior, and generally intolerable.  [Although, there’s a fair amount of debate about the extent to which his behavior actually changed on account of poor records, see].  Modern studies of the brain areas damaged in Gage’s case suggest that those areas contribute to the regulation of emotions.

Gage’s case was just one of many that point to a link between particular areas of the brain and the generation and regulation of emotions.  The next post in this series will address what we’ve learned about emotion from other instances in which humans acquire brain damage.  Sometimes damage is created intentionally—typically to treat intractable diseases (like seizure disorders).  Sometimes damage occurs during strokes.  Finally, there are some diseases out there that target specific brain areas and render them nonfunctional.

In addition to exploring what the emotional lives of people with brain damage have taught us about the neuroscience of emotion, we’ll also be answering questions like: How does neuroimaging really work?  What have animal studies of the brain and emotion taught us? What are the biggest and most dramatic misconceptions about the neuroscience of emotion? How do different brain areas work together to create emotions?

If there are other specific topics you would like to see covered, please email one of the founders or leave a comment for us below.

Welcome to Emotion News!

Dear Readers,

Welcome to Emotion News, a new blog about the science of emotion. We are psychologists and neuroscientists who study the nature of emotions—what they are, how they are created by the brain and body, and how they shape every aspect of our lives. For more on our backgrounds, check out the About the Founders page. Most of the time, we conduct studies with humans or animals and write up our results for scientific audiences. But it seemed increasingly clear to us that there should be a venue for sharing this work more directly with the public, so we started this blog.

We saw a need for Emotion News for several reasons. First and foremost, people are intrinsically interested in emotions, and for good reason. Google the term “emotions,” and it returns 94,600 news articles referencing emotions in less than a second. Yet a lot of the information out there about what emotions are and what they do is just not accurate. People ask us all the time whether it’s true that the right side of the brain is the “emotional side” and the left side of the brain is the “rational side” (nope). Or whether a brain scan can really read their innermost feelings (not really). Or whether men are really biologically tuned to be less emotional than women (most signs point to no). Or whether animals have human-like emotions (the jury is definitely out on that one). In science, things are more gray than black or white, although that’s not how science tends to end up represented in the main-stream media. So we thought it was time for another forum in which emotion scientists write about the science.

We also thought that this blog was necessary because emotions are incredibly important to well, everything, and the public deserves to be educated about them. There is the pervasive impression in our culture that emotions are at worst, dangerous, and at best, frivolous and trivial aspects of human nature. Emotions make us “animal-like” the story goes, and then our evolved human reason has to step in to control our behavior. Of course, we’re biased—we’ve dedicated our careers to studying the nature of emotion—but it is a fact that emotions are absolutely essential to many aspects of what it is to be a human and they deserve our attention. Many years of research shows that emotions contribute to both psychological maladies and psychological flourishing. Stress-related emotions can reach under your skin to actually change how fast you’re aging. By contrast, people who look on the bright side of life have better cardiovascular health. Children who understand their own emotions and the emotions of others do better in school and are better leaders. Emotions shape our romantic relationships, predicting who gets together and stays together v. whose relationship falls apart. Emotions also shape every single decision we make on a day-to-day basis: altering whether we decide to eat v. forego another cupcake, whether we splurge on a new car v. invest in our 401 K, or whether we deem someone trustworthy v. dishonest. The belief that we can reliably “read emotions” in others causes TSA agents to give some people the extra pat down in the security lines at airports (even though US programs that trained TSA agents to diagnose potential terrorists based on emotional facial expressions and body language have largely failed to identify terrorists at airport). Finally, it seems clear that emotions are at the heart of many of the world’s most intractable conflicts. If knowing is half the battle, then we hope that making accurate information accessible will help both individuals, and by extension, society.

In short, our Mission is to bring you cutting-edge research from scientific labs around the globe, cutting out the scientific jargon, but still accurately presenting the story behind the findings. Because emotion crosscuts so many domains of research, we will represent research about emotions from diverse areas of research including social psychology, neuroscience, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, comparative psychology, and genetics. We will also invite colleagues from around the globe to share their own research and diverse outlooks. (Stay tuned, colleagues for invitations or get in touch with us if you have story ideas!) Our goal is to have novel content posted weekly as we gear up, and then hopefully multiple times a week (in a few months). Our aim is for Emotion News to be an open venue for discussion and commentary. Please see our commenting and editorial policies for more information. We hope you will join in!

Kristen & Eliza