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Emotion Becomes "Tractable" to Neuroscience

The finding of hemispheric differences in the 1970s and 1980s led eventually to the more refined and specific theories about the amygdala and left frontal areas by 2000. Using brain scanning techniques such as functional MRI (fMRI), researchers were able to pinpoint activity in particular brain structures, not just whole hemispheres. What they found strengthened earlier ideas and brought together several earlier findings. In particular:

What findings relate to hemispheric differences in processing of emotion?

—The amygdala (a brain area in the limbic system) seems to be involved with fear and anxiety responses, especially in the right hemisphere.

—The prefrontal cortex seems to be involved in optimism, planning, and creativity, especially in the left hemisphere.

What specific areas proved to be involved, and in what ways?

All these findings were consistent with Kinsbourne's notion of a push/pull "control system" and provided a coherent framework for relating emotion to behavior. The convergence of data led researchers to feel that, for the first time, they had a handle on the biology of emotion.

"Emotion is a topic that has become 'tractable' in serious neuroscientific terms," said Richard Davidson recently in a talk titled The Emotional Brain: The Emergence of Affective Neuroscience. "It has given us a handle on affective phenomena that we have just not had previously." (Ruksznis, 1999)

The word tractable means "capable of being dealt with" or "solvable as a problem," so Davidson was proclaiming the triumph of brain science in understanding emotion. The amygdalar circuit pulls people away from dangerous situations by giving them emotions like fear and anxiety, when activated. The left prefrontal area pushes people toward new, challenging situations by giving them emotions like hope and optimism, when activated. A person with a healthy, well-adjusted emotional life experiences the appropriate emotional response in situations of danger or situations of opportunity.

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