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The phobic fear response appears to resemble an intense form of normal threat responding that can be induced in a nonthreatening situation. However, normative and phobic fear are rarely contrasted directly, thus the degree to which these two types of fear elicit similar neural and bodily responses is not well understood. To examine biological correlates of normal and phobic fear, 21 snake phobic and 21 nonphobic controls saw videos of slithering snakes, attacking snakes and fish in an event-related fMRI design. Simultaneous eletrodermal, pupillary, and self-reported affective responses were collected. Nonphobic fear activated a network of threat-responsive brain regions and involved pupillary dilation, electrodermal response and self-reported affect selective to the attacking snakes. Phobic fear recruited a large array of brain regions including those active in normal fear plus additional structures and also engendered increased pupil dilation, electrodermal and self-reported responses that were greater to any snake versus fish. Importantly, phobics showed greater between- and within-subject concordance among neural, electrodermal, pupillary, and subjective report measures. These results suggest phobic responses recruit overlapping but more strongly activated and more extensive networks of brain activity as compared to normative fear, and are characterized by greater concordance among neural activation, peripheral physiology and self-report. It is yet unclear whether concordance is unique to psychopathology, or rather simply an indicator of the intense fear seen in the phobic response, but these results underscore the importance of synchrony between brain, body, and cognition during the phobic reaction.
Individual variation in the experience and expression of pleasure may relate to differential patterns of lateral frontal activity. Brain electrical measures have been used to study the asymmetric involvement of lateral frontal cortex in positive emotion, but the excellent time resolution of these measures has not been used to capture second-by-second changes in ongoing emotion until now. The relationship between pleasure and second-by-second lateral frontal activity was examined with the use of hierarchical linear modeling in a sample of 128 children ages 6-10 years. Electroencephalographic activity was recorded during "pop-out toy," a standardized task that elicits pleasure. The task consisted of 3 epochs: an anticipation period sandwiched between 2 play periods. The amount of pleasure expressed during the task predicted the pattern of nonlinear change in lateral frontal activity. Children who expressed increasing amounts of pleasure during the task exhibited increasing left lateral frontal activity during the task, whereas children who expressed contentment exhibited increasing right/decreasing left activity. These findings indicate that task-dependent changes in pleasure relate to dynamic, nonlinear changes in lateral frontal activity as the task unfolds.
Empathy is the combined ability to interpret the emotional states of others and experience resultant, related emotions. The relation between prefrontal electroencephalographic asymmetry and emotion in infants and children is well known. The relationship between positive emotion (assessed via parent-report), empathy (measured via observation) and second-by-second brain electrical activity (recorded during a pleasurable task) was investigated using a sample of 128 six to ten year olds. Contentment predicted increasing left-sided frontopolar activation (p<.05). Empathic concern and one form of positive empathy predicted increasing right-sided frontopolar activation (ps<.05). A second form of positive empathy predicted increasing left-sided dorsolateral activation (p<.05). This suggests that positive emotion and (negative and positive) empathy predict changes in prefrontal activity in children during a pleasurable task.
Social contact promotes enhanced health and well-being, likely as a function of the social regulation of emotional responding in the face of various life stressors. For this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, 16 married women were subjected to the threat of electric shock while holding their husband's hand, the hand of an anonymous male experimenter, or no hand at all. Results indicated a pervasive attenuation of activation in the neural systems supporting emotional and behavioral threat responses when the women held their husband's hand. A more limited attenuation of activation in these systems occurred when they held the hand of a stranger. Most strikingly, the effects of spousal hand-holding on neural threat responses varied as a function of marital quality, with higher marital quality predicting less threat-related neural activation in the right anterior insula, superior frontal gyrus, and hypothalamus during spousal, but not stranger, hand-holding.
Recent studies have shown that the presence of a caring relational partner can attenuate neural responses to threat. Here we report reanalyzed data from Coan, Schaefer, and Davidson ( 2006 ), investigating the role of relational mutuality in the neural response to threat. Mutuality reflects the degree to which couple members show mutual interest in the sharing of internal feelings, thoughts, aspirations, and joys - a vital form of responsiveness in attachment relationships. We predicted that wives who were high (versus low) in perceived mutuality, and who attended the study session with their husbands, would show reduced neural threat reactivity in response to mild electric shocks. We also explored whether this effect would depend on physical contact (hand-holding). As predicted, we observed that higher mutuality scores corresponded with decreased neural threat responding in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and supplementary motor cortex. These effects were independent of hand-holding condition. These findings suggest that higher perceived mutuality corresponds with decreased self-regulatory effort and attenuated preparatory motor activity in response to threat cues, even in the absence of direct physical contact with social resources.
Facial expressions of pain are an important part of the pain response, signaling distress to others and eliciting social support. To evaluate how voluntary modulation of this response contributes to the pain experience, 29 subjects were exposed to thermal stimulation while making standardized pain, control, or relaxed faces. Dependent measures were self-reported negative effect (valence and arousal) as well as the intensity of nociceptive stimulation required to reach a given subjective level of pain. No direct social feedback was given by the experimenter. Although the amount of nociceptive stimulation did not differ across face conditions, subjects reported more negative effects in response to painful stimulation while holding the pain face. Subsequent analyses suggested the effects were not due to preexisting differences in the difficulty or unpleasantness of making the pain face. These results suggest that voluntary pain expressions have no positively reinforcing (pain attenuating) qualities, at least in the absence of external contingencies such as social reinforcement, and that such expressions may indeed be associated with higher levels of negative affect in response to similar nociceptive input. PERSPECTIVE: This study demonstrates that making a standardized pain face increases negative affect in response to nociceptive stimulation, even in the absence of social feedback. This suggests that exaggerated facial displays of pain, although often socially reinforced, may also have unintended aversive consequences.