Different areas of the brain are activated when we choose to suppress an emotion, compared to when we are instructed to suppress an emotion, according a new study.
Researchers from the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Ghent University scanned the brains of healthy participants and found that key brain systems were activated when choosing to suppress an emotion.
“This result shows that emotional self-control involves a quite different brain system from simply being told how to respond emotionally,” said lead author Dr. Simone Kuhn of Ghent University.
In previous studies, participants were instructed to feel or suppress an emotional response. However, in everyday life we are rarely told to suppress our emotions, and usually have to decide whether to feel or control our emotions, the researchers noted.
In the new study, the researchers showed 15 healthy women unpleasant or frightening pictures. The women were given a choice to feel the emotion elicited by the image or to inhibit the emotion by distancing themselves through an act of self-control.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the women’s brains. They then compared these scans to another experiment where the women were instructed to feel or inhibit their emotions, rather than make the choice for themselves.
What the researchers found is that different parts of the brain were activated in the two situations. When participants decided for themselves to inhibit negative emotions, the scientists found activation in the dorso-medial prefrontal area of the brain. They previously linked this area to deciding to inhibit movement.
In contrast, when the participants were instructed to inhibit the emotion, a second, more lateral area was activated.
“We think controlling one’s emotions and controlling one’s behavior involve overlapping mechanisms,” said Kuhn. “We should distinguish between voluntary and instructed control of emotions, in the same way as we can distinguish between making up our own mind about what do versus following instructions.”
The brain mechanism identified in the study could be a potential target for therapies, according to Professor Patrick Haggard of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and co-author of the study.
“The ability to manage one’s own emotions is affected in many mental health conditions, so identifying this mechanism opens interesting possibilities for future research,” he said.
“Most studies of emotion processing in the brain simply assume that people passively receive emotional stimuli, and automatically feel the corresponding emotion. In contrast, the area we have identified may contribute to some individuals’ ability to rise above particular emotional situations.
“This kind of self-control mechanism may have positive aspects, for example making people less vulnerable to excessive emotion,” he continued. “But altered function of this brain area could also potentially lead to difficulties in responding appropriately to emotional situations.”