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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Jun 12;109(24):9599-604. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1206095109. Epub 2012 May 23.

Emotions promote social interaction by synchronizing brain activity across individuals.

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  • 1Brain Research Unit, O.V. Lounasmaa Laboratory, Department of Biomedical Engineering and Computational Science, and Advanced Magnetic Imaging Centre, School of Science, Aalto University, FI-00076 Aalto, Finland.


Sharing others' emotional states may facilitate understanding their intentions and actions. Here we show that networks of brain areas "tick together" in participants who are viewing similar emotional events in a movie. Participants' brain activity was measured with functional MRI while they watched movies depicting unpleasant, neutral, and pleasant emotions. After scanning, participants watched the movies again and continuously rated their experience of pleasantness-unpleasantness (i.e., valence) and of arousal-calmness. Pearson's correlation coefficient was used to derive multisubject voxelwise similarity measures [intersubject correlations (ISCs)] of functional MRI data. Valence and arousal time series were used to predict the moment-to-moment ISCs computed using a 17-s moving average. During movie viewing, participants' brain activity was synchronized in lower- and higher-order sensory areas and in corticolimbic emotion circuits. Negative valence was associated with increased ISC in the emotion-processing network (thalamus, ventral striatum, insula) and in the default-mode network (precuneus, temporoparietal junction, medial prefrontal cortex, posterior superior temporal sulcus). High arousal was associated with increased ISC in the somatosensory cortices and visual and dorsal attention networks comprising the visual cortex, bilateral intraparietal sulci, and frontal eye fields. Seed-voxel-based correlation analysis confirmed that these sets of regions constitute dissociable, functional networks. We propose that negative valence synchronizes individuals' brain areas supporting emotional sensations and understanding of another's actions, whereas high arousal directs individuals' attention to similar features of the environment. By enhancing the synchrony of brain activity across individuals, emotions may promote social interaction and facilitate interpersonal understanding.

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