This Is Your Brain. And this Is Your Brain on Gossip.

Late last month, smack in the middle of the DiMasi trial and right around the time we learned of Arnold’s infidelity, a Science study out of Northeastern University popped into the world and promptly landed itself in headlines across the blogosphere. The title, “The Visual Impact of Gossip,” pretty much explains its popularity off the bat. The gist was this: juicy gossip – that is, negative social information about someone – increases the importance of the info-associated face to your unconscious brain as it makes split-second decisions about what, from the relentless flood of information it receives from the outside world, to notice and linger on without you ever even realizing a decision has been made. It means that whether you mean to or not, you will zero in on that guy you heard once fired someone before Christmas/pooped in the street/threw a chair at a classmate.

This means several things. First, it suggests that if our unconscious brain is deciding what to observe before we observe it, it may be beyond us to be truly objective in what we see. Second, yes, we are in a sense, apparently hardwired for gossip. Third, newspapers and blogs get to make headlines like these:

Hounded by Office Stares – Someone May Be Gossiping About You.” [BioScholar]

Psst! The Human Brain is Wired for Gossip.” [NPR]

And the completely misleading: “Gossip Makes People Ugly, Study Says.” [Daily Gossip]

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett

The work was led by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a recently appointed Distinguished Professor with the psychology department at Northeastern. This is far, however, from her first brush with sci-celebrity. Late last year, she published a study correlating the size of the amygdala (the so-called emotional center of the brain) with people’s bustling social lives, which earned over 500 media mentions. She’s a regular name in the newspaper health beats, serves on editorial and advisory boards for more psychology journals than I can count on my fingers, and in 2007, she won the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award – then only the second psychologist to ever receive it.

Since she first began to study psychology over two decades ago, Barrett has analyzed her way through the fields of social, emotion, neuro and cognitive psychology, reaching the conclusion that the standard approaches to these fields are fundamentally inadequate. Within the last few years, she’s begun to propose a new approach, one that embraces the intensely messy convolutions of our brains. At the moment, she’s calling it psychological construction; it’s already begun begun to trickle into classrooms, seminars and conferences, though not, Barrett says, without a certain amount of resistance. I had the chance to get her on the phone recently and pick her brain about her growing theory, this latest study, and her take on how our brains craft the world around us.

The key finding in this new paper seems to be less that we love gossip for a reason, but more that it affects how we see literally see the world – is that right?
Yes – so, really our goal was to study how far down into perception feelings can reach. It’s obvious to all of us that what you see influences what you feel – but could what you feel impact what you see, visually? That’s what we were asking. And one of the quickest and most potent ways to change a person’s feelings is to gossip about someone else. And then from there, you can use experimental procedures to ask whether those feelings are directly influencing perception. The answer to our question was yes.

You mention in the paper that the finding is consistent with neuroanatomical evidence that mood can affect neuron firing in the visual cortex – can you expand on that?
So, the brain is a highly interconnected set of cortical regions. People tend to think about neural activity as islands of activation in one part of the brain or another part of the brain, but it really doesn’t work like that. There are a number of tract-tracing experiments in primates where scientists inject dye into one set of neurons to see where the dye goes and determine which other neurons they are connected to. The amygdala in particular projects all along the parts of the visual cortex that are involved with visual consciousness, all the way back into V1, which is our primary visual cortex – and that was a really surprising discovery at the time, it meant the amygdala could modulate visual processing all the way back to the start of the processing. And now we know also that the amygdala projects to other cortical regions – including the orbitofrontal cortex – which itself has direct projections throughout visual cortex – both the part that has to do with seeing consciously, and the part of the visual cortex involved with allowing a physical response before you consciously see something. And so parts of the brain that are involved in representing an affective [ed note: emotional] response are projecting directly to the visual cortex quite broadly, and these projections suggest that what your affective reaction is to something will absolutely influence how you see that thing.

Could this be the case with other senses as well? Hearing? Touch?
We’re just starting to study this, but the amygdala in particular also has very strong connections to other sensory cortices, like auditory cortex and olfactory cortex. Tactile sensation is similar, and in fact with any sense, the information that comes from the outside world, your body can — in principle — make more salient if they have affective significance, based on the connections we see.

What other innovative or unexpected things do you study in your lab?
We have a couple of other exciting things. One has to do with how language shapes emotion perception. And one of the things we’ve discovered is this: it feels to us like we can read emotions in people as easily as we read words on the page. Most psychology textbooks state that there are seven, plus or minus two, emotions that are biologically basic and can be expressed on faces and recognized all over the world. And the government pays millions of dollars to train their FBI, CIA, and TSA agents to read emotions based on these ideas. But we have evidence that emotion perception does not really work this way, that you don’t read emotions as easily as words on a page. It’s more like sentence comprehension: you as the reader are using on a lot of context, and if the context is removed, accuracy decreases a lot. So the more that “emotion” words are involved in a judgment task, the higher the accuracy a person has in correctly identifying the expressed emotion. But the more you remove words from the task, the worse their judgment gets. I can take a group of socially homogeneous undergraduates and I can reduce their emotional accuracy to chance, just by removing emotion words like “anger” or “fear” from the experiment. These are a very dramatic set of experiments, because they show first that the majority of textbooks are wrong, and second that the government is spending millions of dollars training people on something that doesn’t work to detect deception.

So if you need words to recognize emotion, does that mean your words influence how you experience them?
Yes, exactly. What our work suggests — and it is far from conclusive, it’s a brand new model, I only started writing about it 5-6 years ago — but a lot of our work suggests that the vocabulary you have for emotion helps to shape your emotional experience and perception, so if you don’t share the same vocabulary, you will have differences in communicating about your emotions as well. This has implications for anything that has to do with cross cultural globalization, because if you were out there in a very different culture, you would proceed in one way if you thought emotions were universal and everyone could experience and recognize the same emotion equally. But you would proceed in a very different way if you thought that emotions were learned and shaped by language.

Does this tie in to the new approach to considering psychology that you have been describing in recent papers? Could you tell me a little about that?
Yes, it ties in. We basically find that emotions are not natural kinds of categories — emotions are not localized in the brain. You hear all the time that the amygdala is the fear center, but if you look at hundreds and hundreds of studies and you summarize them statistically, that’s not the story you see. The idea that different brain regions represent different emotions or actions, like “there’s one brain region for fear, one for disgust,” — that’s based on a machine model of the mind, where different brain locales are like bits and pieces in a machine and they each serve their own purpose. But a better metaphor is that the brain is a pantry, filled with these basic processes — ingredients — and those ingredients can be combined to create — and are present in — all kinds of mental states. So anger and fear and sadness, for example, have a lot in common in terms of their brain signatures because what it looks like is that there are a set of networks that are performing a set of operations, and they’re doing that in a lot of mental states.

So it’s the patterns? Patterns of firing, such that the same brain region can, by way of firing differently, be involved in anger, fear, etc…?
Yes, exactly. And it’s an approach to psychology that can be applied to all sorts of different questions. I’ve called it psychological construction. That could change, but that’s what I’m calling it right now. But so pick apart the ventromedial prefrontal cortex: if you look at that when that brain region is active in studies of emotion, people call it an emotion area. When those regions are active in memory studies, they call it a memory region. In studies of object perception, it is called an object perception region. And you can pretty much take any region of cortex and make the same observation — aside from primary sensory cortices, of course. A region’s psychological function appears to be determined by the neural context – the other brain regions that are also firing at the same time. But the brain region itself doesn’t have a single function. The brain doesn’t respect categories like perception, memory, cognition, emotion – these just aren’t meaningful scientific labels. They’re human categories.

So you’ve been studying emotion for a very long time – since your days at Toronto, right? How did you get into this work?
I didn’t really start as an emotion researcher. It’s interesting when you enter a field that’s not your own, because you don’t have preconceived notions. And when I entered the emotion field, there were basically two traditions: the “basic emotion” view that there are seven, plus or minus two, universal emotions that have specific locations in the brain, specific facial expressions, and specific patterns of bodily activation and that, with the right triggers, would be produced in an obligatory way. The other approach was the “appraisal” approach, which is the idea that emotions are not obligatory but are based on your assessment of a stimulus. If I put a snake in front of you, the basic emotion approach would predict that this would trigger a fear response, with increased heart rate, a startled expression, and so on; the appraisal approach would predict that you have to decide that the snake is threatening to you and then your cognitive interpretation of that threat makes your heart rate go up, a startled expression, and so on. The thing is, when I started studying emotion, I didn’t see these patterns, one for fear, one for anger, one for sadness, and so on. I did not observe these patterns in my own data or other people’s data. And I was captivated by what looked to me like a puzzle: Emotions feel as if they sweep over us, emerging unbidden, to disrupt whatever we were thinking or doing a moment beforehand. We also see emotions in other people (and animals) easily and effortlessly. Yet in science there is no objective measure of anger, fear, sadness, or for any emotion. In the past, the assumption has been that either the perceivers are right and the science is flawed because we have not yet found emotion signatures, or that the science is right and that the emotions we see and feel on a daily basis must be illusions. I think both the points of view are right, and someone has to craft a scientific understanding of that. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.