A model for emotions

Researchers investigate the universe of emotions

May 14, 2024

Feelings or emotions have not yet been systematically described in neuroscience. The best-known theories on why emotions significantly influence our brain and how they arise were put forward at the end of the 1970s. The Human Affectome Project has now presented a comprehensive and integrated model for emotions and feelings that is intended to serve as a common concept for affective research. Together with over 170 researchers from more than 20 countries, Matthias Schroeter and his team from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, report on, among other things, which brain regions are involved in social emotions.

As everyone knows from everyday life, we are not rational machines. Even if we have weighed up all the pros and cons of a decision, we are sometimes unable to make a decision. This is particularly true of complex decisions in life. Here, feelings help us as indicators of what a correct decision might be. To improve the scientific understanding of how our feelings, emotions and moods relate to and influence human behavior - known in the scientific community as "affective neuroscience" - an interdisciplinary working group of 173 scientists from 23 countries has developed a systematic concept that encompasses the enormous diversity of affective phenomena. 

To solve this challenge, the Human Affectome Project was launched in 2016 by Neuroqualia - a Canadian-based non-profit organization. Using a computational linguistics approach, data from more than 4.5 million books was first searched to identify more than 3,600 words in the English language that describe sensations, emotions and moods. Twelve teams of researchers then reviewed much of what is currently known about feelings, emotions and moods from a neuroscientific perspective. They also reviewed the linguistic terms commonly used to describe these experiences and developed a model that embeds these experiences in a single unified framework.

Matthias Schroeter's working group played a key role in three sub-projects, for which the researchers produced systematic meta-analyses that used big data to identify the brain regions associated with different emotions. The first project focused on anticipatory feelings, which are oriented towards future events, such as optimism, hope, pessimism and worry. The second project examined self-referential feelings, i.e. those feelings that relate to ourselves, the affective foundations of our "self" (consciousness of self). Finally, the third project was dedicated to the foundations of social feelings, which are a prerequisite for successful communication with other people and living beings.

"This ambitious international project is the first attempt to develop a comprehensive concept of affective neuroscience," says Matthias Schroeter. But the project is not only contributing to basic research, according to the head of the "Cognitive Neuropsychiatry" research group at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. "In addition to the precise characterization of feelings, emotions and moods and their brain regions, the results have far-reaching consequences. They contribute to our understanding of what makes us human," says Schroeter. "These findings also lay the foundation for us to better understand and treat illnesses such as schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression and dementia." As a neuropsychiatrist, Matthias Schroeter is already applying these concepts in his work at the Clinic for Cognitive Neurology at the University of Leipzig Medical Center. "Many diseases of the brain are characterized by changes in this area - with decisive consequences for diagnostics and therapy."

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