Friday, June 22, 2007

One Word.

Scared. Angry. Putting a one word label on the face to the left by pressing one of two buttons was an experimental task performed by participants in a recent study by Lieberman et al. (2007). That's the same as years of talk therapy, according to science writers and even Lieberman himself. For example,

Adapted from Fig. 1 of Lieberman et al. (2007).

Talking the pain away ...

[...after reading about this horribly, horribly overinterpreted study...]

by Lea Winerman
[APA] Monitor Staff [they should know better! one word: shame!]

Tell your troubles to a Guatemalan worry doll, place it beneath your pillow and, according to legend, those worries will be gone by morning. That’s just one example of the culture-spanning idea that putting problems into words can blunt those problems’ emotional impact. Centuries of thinkers—from Spinoza to William James to every psychologist who practices talk therapy—have recognized this peculiar power of language, according to UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman, PhD.

. . .

Using fMRI, the researchers found that when the participants labeled the faces’ emotions using words, they showed less activity in the amygdala—an area of the brain associated with emotional distress. At the same time, they showed more activity in the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex...

...this suggests that verbalizing an emotion may activate the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex, which then suppresses the areas of the brain that produce emotional pain. [because deciding whether a face is angry or scared is so emotionally wrenching.]

"[In talk therapy] we tend to focus primarily on content and enhanced understandings and changed understandings," said Lieberman. "But it’s not entirely irrelevant that they all involve putting feelings into words."
One word. a bomb in your hands.

-- Scrawl,
One Word
What was the study about? The researchers compared "affect labeling" (shown above) to other kinds of tasks to see which brain regions were specifically active when people pressed a button to indicate whether a facial expression conveyed fear or anger [for instance; "happy" and "surprised" were other possibilities, but these occurred only 20% of the time]. What were the other tasks? The five control conditions were "affect matching"(choosing which of two faces matches the expression of the target), "gender matching" (choosing which of two faces matches the gender of the target), "shape matching" (with simple geometric shapes) "gender labeling" (choosing the gender-appropriate name), and "observe affect" (just look at the emotional face without making a response). The most important contrast was affect labeling vs. gender labeling.

Adapted from Fig. 1 of Lieberman et al. (2007).

What were the results, and how should we interpret them? Mind Hacks is most certainly on the right track (bold emphasis mine):
The VLPFC increases its activity to dampen down the emotions triggered by the amygdala.

it's not clear whether this happens equally for both positive and negative emotions, as 80% of the faces in the study had expressions of anger or fear, while only 20% displayed happiness or surprise, so this data only really tells us about unpleasant feelings.

We know that observing emotion in others makes us more likely to feel the same thing ourselves, but it's not the same as experiencing an emotion 'first-hand', so
we need to be a bit careful in assuming that this study fully represents the more everyday experience of talking about our emotions.

This experiment gives us a good understanding of the brain circuit involved reducing emotional impact via naming, but it doesn't tell us much about why this occurs.

This is one of the major drawbacks of neuroimaging studies. They often just redescribe an effect in terms of brain activity.
Yes. But that doesn't stop journalists from wild extrapolation (see blogosphere debate on the conflict between scientists vs. science journalists).
Name that feeling: You'll feel better

By Julie Steenhuysen
Thu Jun 21, 12:31 AM ET

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Putting feelings into words makes sadness and anger less intense, U.S. brain researchers said on Wednesday, in a finding that explains why talking to a therapist -- or even a sympathetic bartender -- often makes people feel better.

They said talking about negative feelings activates a part of the brain responsible for impulse control.
"Anger." There. I wrote it. Press the right button. Do I feel better now? Do you?

You're scaring me now in the new year
You're scaring me now
You're scaring me now
One word is a bomb in your hands
One word becomes a bomb in your hands
One word is a bomb in your hands

-- Scrawl,
One Word


Lieberman MD, Eisenberger NI, Crockett MJ, Tom SM, Pfeifer JH, Way BM. (2007). Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychol Sci. 18(5):421-8.

Putting feelings into words (affect labeling) has long been thought to help manage negative emotional experiences; however, the mechanisms by which affect labeling produces this benefit remain largely unknown. Recent neuroimaging studies suggest a possible neurocognitive pathway for this process, but methodological limitations of previous studies have prevented strong inferences from being drawn. A functional magnetic resonance imaging study of affect labeling was conducted to remedy these limitations. The results indicated that affect labeling, relative to other forms of encoding, diminished the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images. Additionally, affect labeling produced increased activity in a single brain region, right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC). Finally, RVLPFC and amygdala activity during affect labeling were inversely correlated, a relationship that was mediated by activity in medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). These results suggest that affect labeling may diminish emotional reactivity along a pathway from RVLPFC to MPFC to the amygdala.

If I give it a name it wouldn't be love
If I give it a name it wouldn't be love

-- Scrawl, One Word

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At June 22, 2007 4:22 PM, Blogger Sandra said...


At June 22, 2007 4:31 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...


At June 26, 2007 6:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm curious, quite what do you spend your day doing? I mean you obviously put quite a bit of effort into misrepresenting and then bashing people's work (in fact, in my mind a more fitting blogger name for you is 'StrawMan'); do you actually spend time doing anything to forward the field (other than construct misinformed conclusions about studies)? If I had to guess, you are a graduate student who hasn't learned that coming up with novel finding that have REAL implications is difficult. Maybe I am wrong? Why dont you tell us a little bit about YOUR ground-breaking research? Your jaded, wanna-be hipster commentaries are offensive. Why don't you do something useful with your time and try to PROVE your points with an EMPIRICAL study?

At June 26, 2007 7:12 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous Peer Review Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry. Under the guise of professional peer review, manuscript referees and grant reviewers have complete license to bash another’s work. Haven’t you noticed?

In this specific post, I did NOT criticize the actual experiment at all, only the way in which the findings were overinterpreted in press coverage.

At August 30, 2007 9:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I agree with you in the sense that Neurocritic is far harsher on the media than I would be, but it is useful to be reminded of their silliness and overstretching.

One reason I'm not so critical of the media is that I'm frequently so happy to see scientific research get any media attention at all. High school students hear about our work and decide "I want to do that". Maybe things have to be sensationalized a bit to get the general putlic interested -- a kind of foot-in-the-door technique.


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