Interdisciplinary Research on Emotions in Neuroscience and Philosophy

Emotional Self-regulation and Cognitive Control

This project aims at the investigation of cognitive control processes to regulate emotion. Recent empirical studies led to the conclusion that emotions have a strong impact on our thoughts and rational decisions. Emotions can ameliorate as well as impair cognitive performance - inducing a positive affective state for example leads to greater cognitive flexibility while at the same time augmenting distractibility following irrelevant stimuli. Despite the fact that our feelings may exert a strong influence on cognitive processes, we are not left entirely powerless but are given the ability to influence our emotions in a direct as well as in an indirect manner. Project 2 intends to answer the question of how to regulate and control emotional states through cognitive processes. However, this does not mean that complete control of our emotions is possible or even desirable. It is rather intended to investigate the circumstances under which emotional self-regulation is possible and helpful and how the type of regulation strategy determines the experience of an emotion. These topics will be addressed empirically by means of behavioral exploration as well as by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Based on recent fMRI studies concerning strategies for the down-regulation of negative emotions we will investigate the impact of different regulatory strategies on the experience of emotions and specific brain regions. The regions of interest will be the amygdala as the most relevant subcortical structure involved in emotional processing and the prefrontal cortex as a region exerting executive control functions while also possessing direct neuronal connections to subcortical structures. Previous studies found an influence of the prefrontal cortex over amygdala functions not only during explicitly instructed emotion regulation, but also when emotion regulation was automatic and implicit. In order to gain further insight into the interplay of these two key regions, functional as well as effective connectivity of the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex during the performance or emotion regulation will be specifically addressed.

Based on the four-component-model of emotions (subjective experience, physiological processes, expressive behavior, cognitive appraisal) the most important strategies of emotion regulation which have been assessed by experimental psychology refer to the last two components: suppression of emotion expression and reappraisal. These two strategies will also be subject of closer investigation in this project.

In order to specify the object of interest precisely, a proper conceptualization is needed which provides a means to distinguish sharply between correlates, substrates and causation of mental processes. Our ambition is to reconcile the experimental approach of project 2 with the philosophical approaches of our fellow projects, which propose that emotions are more than a mere combination of physiology and cognition. More specifically, we hope to come to a more precise understanding of the aspect of reappraisal during emotion regulatory processes by combining the results from the empirical studies with the theoretical concepts formed in the philosophical projects.

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