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Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.

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Neuroscience. 2nd edition.

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Physiological Changes Associated with Emotion

The most obvious signs of emotional arousal involve changes in the activity of the visceral motor (autonomic) system (see Chapter 21). Thus, increases or decreases in heart rate, cutaneous blood flow (blushing or turning pale), piloerection, sweating, and gastrointestinal motility can all accompany various emotions. These responses are brought about by changes in activity in the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric components of the visceral motor system, which govern smooth muscle, cardiac muscle, and glands throughout the body. As discussed in Chapter 21, Walter Cannon argued that intense activity of the sympathetic division of the visceral motor system prepares the animal to fully utilize metabolic and other resources in challenging or threatening situations. Conversely, activity of the parasympathetic division (and the enteric division) promotes a building up of metabolic reserves. Cannon further suggested that the natural opposition of the expenditure and storage of resources is reflected in a parallel opposition of the emotions associated with these different physiological states. As Cannon pointed out, “The desire for food and drink, the relish of taking them, all the pleasures of the table are naught in the presence of anger or great anxiety.”

Activation of the visceral motor system, particularly the sympathetic division, was long considered an all-or-nothing process. Once effective stimuli engaged the system, it was argued, a widespread discharge of all of its components ensued. More recent studies have shown that the responses of the autonomic nervous system are actually quite specific, with different patterns of activation characterizing different situations and their associated emotional states. Indeed, emotion-specific expressions produced voluntarily can elicit distinct patterns of autonomic activity. For example, if subjects are given muscle-by-muscle instructions that result in facial expressions recognizable as anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, or surprise without being told which emotion they are simulating, each pattern of facial muscle activity is accompanied by specific and reproducible differences in visceral motor activity (as measured by indices such as heart rate, skin conductance, and skin temperature). Moreover, autonomic responses are strongest when the facial expressions are judged to most closely resemble actual emotional expression and are often accompanied by the subjective experience of that emotion! One interpretation of these findings is that when voluntary facial expressions are produced, signals in the brain engage not only the motor cortex but also some of the circuits that produce emotional states. Perhaps this relationship helps explain how good actors can be so convincing. Nevertheless, we are quite adept at recognizing the difference between a contrived facial expression and the spontaneous smile that accompanies a pleasant emotional state (Box A).

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Box A

Facial Expressions: Pyramidal and Extrapyramidal Contributions.

This evidence, along with many other observations, indicates that one source of emotion is sensory drive from muscles and internal organs. This input forms the sensory limb of reflex circuitry that allows rapid physiological changes in response to altered conditions. However, physiological responses can also be elicited by complex and idiosyncratic stimuli mediated by the forebrain. For example, an anticipated tryst with a lover, a suspenseful episode in a novel or film, stirring patriotic or religious music, or dishonest accusations can all lead to autonomic activation and strongly felt emotions. The neural activity evoked by such complex stimuli is relayed from the forebrain to autonomic and somatic motor nuclei via the hypothalamus and brainstem reticular formation, the major structures that coordinate the expression of emotional behavior (see next section).

In summary, emotion and motor behavior are inextricably linked. As William James put it more than a century ago:

What kind of an emotion of fear would be left if the feeling neither of quickened heart-beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose-flesh nor of visceral stirrings, were present, it is quite impossible for me to think … I say that for us emotion dissociated from all bodily feeling is inconceivable.

William James, 1893 (Psychology: p. 379.)

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2001, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
Bookshelf ID: NBK10829


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