News Release

Run screaming or slow retreat? New study advances understanding of brain responses to emotionally-charged scenes

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Trinity College Dublin

The ability to recognise and respond to emotionally-charged situations is essential to a species’ evolutionary success. A new study published today [July 9th] in Nature Communications advances our understanding of how the brain responds to emotionally charged objects and scenes. 

The research, led by Trinity College Dublin neuroscientist Prof. Sonia Bishop and Google researcher Samy Abdel-Ghaffar while he was a PhD student in Prof. Bishop's lab at UC Berkeley, has identified how the brain represents different categories of emotional stimuli in a way that allows for more than a simple 'approach avoid' dichotomy when guiding behavioural responses.  The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, USA. 

Sonia Bishop, now Chair of Psychology, in Trinity’s School of Psychology and senior author of the paper explains: “It is hugely important for all species to be able to recognise and respond appropriately to emotionally salient stimuli, whether that means not eating rotten food, running from a bear, approaching an attractive person in a bar or comforting a tearful child. 

“How the brain enables us to respond in a nuanced way to emotionally-charged situations and stimuli has long been of interest. But, little is known about the how the brain stores schemas or neural representations to support the nuanced behavioural choices we make in response to emotional natural stimuli.

“Neuroscience studies of motivated behaviour often focus on simple approach or avoidance behaviours – such as lever pressing for food or changing locations to avoid a shock. However, when faced with natural emotional stimuli, humans don’t simply choose between ‘approach’ or ‘avoid’. Rather they select from a complex range of suitable responses. So, for example, our ‘avoid’ response to a large bear (leave the area ASAP) is different to our ‘avoid’ response to a weak, diseased, animal (don’t get too close). Similarly our ‘approach’ response to the positive stimuli of a potential mate differs to our ‘approach’ reaction to a cute baby. 

“Our research reveals that the occipital temporal cortex is tuned not only to different categories of stimuli but it also breaks down these categories based on their emotional characteristics in a way that is well suited to guide selection between alternate behaviours.”

The research team from Trinity College Dublin, University of California Berkeley, University of Texas at Austin, Google and University of Nevada Reno, analysed the brain activity of a small group of volunteers when viewing over 1,500 images depicting natural emotional scenes such as a couple hugging, an injured person in a hospital bed, a luxurious home, and an aggressive dog. 

Participants were asked to categorise the images as positive, negative or neutral and to also rate the emotional intensity of the images. A second group of participants picked the behavioural responses that best matched each scene. 

Using cutting-edge modelling of brain activity divided into tiny cubes (of under 3mm3) the study discovered that the occipital temporal cortex (OTC),  a region at the back of the brain, is tuned to represent both the type of stimulus (single human, couple, crowd, reptile, mammal, food, object, building, landscape etc.) and the emotional characteristics of the stimulus – whether it’s negative, positive or neutral and also whether it’s high or low in emotional intensity. 

Machine learning showed that these stable tuning patterns were more efficient in predicting the behaviours matched to the images by the second group of participants than could be achieved by applying machine learning directly to image features — suggesting that the OTC efficiently extracts and represents the information needed to guide behaviour. 

Samy Abdel-Ghaffar, Google, commented: “For this project we used Voxel-Wise Modeling, which combines machine learning methods, large datasets and encoding models, to give us a much more fine-grained understanding of what each part of the OTC represents than traditional neuroimaging methods. This approach let us explore the intertwined representation of categorical and emotional scene features, and opened the door to novel understanding of how OTC representations predict behaviour."    

Prof. Bishop added: "These findings expand our knowledge of how the human brain represents emotional natural stimuli. In addition, the paradigm used does not involve a complex task making this approach suitable in the future, for example, to further understanding of how individuals with  a range of neurological and psychiatric conditions differ in processing emotional natural stimuli.”

Notes to editor: 

The paper, “Occipital-temporal cortical tuning to semantic and affective features of natural images predicts associated behavioral responses” by Samy A. Abdel-Ghaffar, Alexander G. Huth, Mark D. Lescroart, Dustin Stansbury, Jack L. Gallant & Sonia J. Bishop, is available on request.

More about the study method:

The team used a novel large dataset of 1,620 emotional natural images and conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging with adult human volunteers, acquiring  over 3,800 3D pictures of brain activity while participants viewed these images. Participants judged these images on valence (positive, negative or neutral) and arousal (or emotional intensity). 

Modelling this data using small 2.4x2.4x3mm chunks or 'voxels' of brain activity, the researchers found that regions of occipital temporal cortex, in the back of the brain, showed differential representation of both stimulus semantic category and affective value. For example, positive high arousal faces were represented in slightly different regions to negative high arousal faces and neutral low arousal faces.

Furthermore, when a completely new set of participants were asked to select behaviours that went with each image, the top dimensions of this neural coding representational 'space'  better predicted the behaviours selected than the top dimensions based directly on image features (for example is the stimulus animate? positive?). This suggests that the brain chooses which information is important or not important to represent and hold stable representations of sub-categories of animate and inanimate stimuli that integrate affective information and are optimally organised to support the selection of behaviours to different types of emotional natural stimuli.


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