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Dr. Karim Kassam, Carnegie Mellon University – Brain Imaging and Emotions


In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Karim Kassam of Carnegie Mellon University reveals what brain imaging techniques have to say about the spectrum of human emotions. 

Karim Kassam is an assistant professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University where his research is focused on emotion and decision making, the physiology of emotion, and facial expressions. His Emotion Research Laboratory works to uncover the effects of various emotions on or decisions and uses physiological measures and facial coding to predict when and how those effects will occur. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

About Dr. Kassam

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Dr. Karim Kassam – Brain Imaging and Emotions

Emotional experience pervades every aspect of mental life. Emotions influence our memories and perceptions as well as our decisions and actions. When emotional processing gets out of whack, a number of problems result.

Everyone agrees that emotion is important. Surprisingly though, researchers don’t have a solid grasp of precisely what emotion IS. We don’t know what processes give rise to emotion, we’re not sure how different emotions relate to one another, and we don’t know how emotion is represented in the brain.

In order to address these gaps in our understanding, my colleagues and I conducted an fMRI experiment. We recruited professional actors and had them imagine being in different emotional states while we scanned their brains. Why actors? We wanted to study a broad range of emotions, and actors are adept at rapidly entering and exiting emotional states on cue.

The results tell us a lot about emotion. We found that the neural signatures of emotion were common across people and across different types of emotional experience. And we were able to inspect those neural signatures to see how the brain represents emotion. We found that anger looks more similar to happiness than any other negative emotion, possibly because both angry and happy individuals tend to approach the source of their emotion. And we found that lust looked unlike any other emotion; it was represented by a unique pattern of neural activation that was hard to confuse with anything else.

Beyond what they tell us about the structure of emotion, the results also suggest a method of measuring emotion. Existing methods, liking looking at people’s heart rate or blood pressure, examining their facial expression, or simply asking them how they feel, all have their flaws. Our research suggests, for the first time, that we can use neuroscience to accurately measure people’s emotional states.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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