The Neuroscience of Emotions by Dr. Phillippe Goldin (Full Transcript)

Topic: The Neuroscience of Emotions 

Speaker: Dr. Phillippe Goldin

Event: Google Tech Talks, September 16, 2008


Chade-Meng Tan – Owner, Search Inside Yourself Program

Hello. Good afternoon, my friends. My name is Meng, and I’m the owner of the Search Inside Yourself Program in Google, or the S.I.Y. Program.

S.I.Y. is Google’s home-grown emotional intelligence– sorry– home-grown, mindfulness-based emotional intelligence course, and we hope someday to make this course accessible to the whole world. This lecture will become part of the content for the S.I.Y. course in the future.

And I’m delighted today to introduce my dear friend and S.I.Y. instructor Philippe Goldin. Philippe heads the clinic— Let me get this– Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience Group in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University. He spent six years in India and Nepal studying various languages. I don’t actually know how many languages he speaks, but it’s, like, more than three. And he studied Buddhist philosophy and debate at various monasteries.

And then he returned to the US to complete a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Rutgers University. His research focuses on function and neuroimaging investigations of cognitive, affective mechanisms.

The effect of mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavior therapy, and the effect of parent-child mindfulness meditation training. And, oh, by the way, he’s also a meditation teacher, in case you missed that.

And in person I find Philippe to be very smart, very capable, and very compassionate. And I’m very happy he’s my friend. He’s just amazing. And my friends, please welcome Philippe Goldin.

Philippe Goldin – Head, CAAN, Stanford University

Very nice. Okay. So, it’s an honor to be here. And I know that everyone is very busy, so I really appreciate that you are here. Let’s begin.

So, yes, I’m going to speak about the neuroscience of emotions. And, yes, I do come from an academic background, and also a practice background. And just to be really clear, the intention for today is to give you a brief introduction to a little bit about what we understand about the neuroscience and how the brain works with respect to emotions, emotion regulation, emotion intelligence.

But it’ll be brief because we only have a short time. And this obviously — We should start with some history.


So, Darwin, speaking about emotions, made it very clear that animals need emotions to survive. So do we. They need fear as a trigger to escape predators, and aggression to defend their territory, their young, and food.

Emotions– He believed that emotions are really maintained from our animal past in the trajectory of evolution of human animals. And that we really rely on different emotions in different ways to make quick, often complex, decisions.

So why do we have emotions?

As you can see here, just looking at this photograph, just notice where your attention goes. Notice what you see. So, from multiple decades of research on emotions, we know that there are several functions. One way–emotions help to direct our attention. It helps to enhance our memory and how we actually encode and consolidate different pieces of information. Especially for information that’s personally salient.

It also helps us to organize our behavior and our orientation towards other people. Specifically how we drive– It helps to drive and direct social approach or even social avoidance. And, probably most importantly for this group, and for the course– the Search Inside Yourself course, is that different emotions and the way our learning history with emotions really helps to develop moral and ethical behavior.

When emotions — and the brain is functioning well, it can be an incredibly adaptive system, meaning that emotions bring richness to our experience, how we interact with people, how we interact with ourselves.

When emotions are dysregulated, out of control, exaggerated, this can lead to things like anxiety, depression, burn-out, even suicide. So this is really a very important aspect of the human experience.

Classes of emotion

There are different classes of emotion. So, researchers have talked about six primary or basic emotions. They are happiness– as you can see– Happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, disgust, and anger. And you can check your own experience as we go through this talk to see how this aligns with what you’ve experienced in yourself.

There’s also kind of a background sense of emotion or mood– Moods are long-term, emotions are more punctate or short, acute. So they talk often about wellbeing versus malaise. A sense of calm versus a sense of tension. Feelings of pain, emotional and physical, in contrast to pleasure.

And then, importantly, especially for social animals like human beings, all of us, there’s a whole other realm of social emotions that are in contrast to the primary. And this really has to do with interpersonal interaction, so emotions that arise like embarrassment, jealousy, guilt, shame, sense of pride. So this is a rough sketch of the different kinds of emotions.

Now, emotions are obviously expressed. One of the most powerful, ubiquitous ways is through our facial expressions. So these are the six primary emotions and the facial expressions of those emotions. As you can see. And apparently, in the English language, there are over 600 words to describe different emotions, and on your face there are 42 different muscles that work together to express, very subtly, different emotional expressions.

And Paul Ekman from U.C. San Francisco, emeritus professor, actually came up with a facial action coding system to actually delineate what muscle groups need to arise in order to make different emotional expressions. So there’s a whole science behind all of this. It’s not only an American or a North American emotional expression thing. In fact, lots of research by Paul Ekman and other people have shown that the identification of different facial expressions is cross-cultural, as you can see, and there’s a very high rate of consensus across different cultures, different backgrounds, about what constitutes happiness, sadness, disgust, and so forth.

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Another very important purpose for studying emotions is that emotions are truly, if you think about it, and check your own experience– are an important source of information and feedback that help to direct our behavior and also our social interactions.

So you can think, how often do we use a gut feeling or a gut instinct or kind of an intuition to make a quick decision? And, in fact, I would suggest that if you check your experience, this is happening many times per day. So emotions are really contributing to cognitive processes. Thinking, reasoning, decision making.

Now, we know that here, in the brain, when a person has a lesion, right, the absence of a– be it a tumor or some kind of disease, we know that frontal lobe lesions often result in impaired emotional awareness. Which goes along with impairment in social reasoning or interpersonal problems, and also problems making decisions.

So we know that there’s a direct connection between the functions of brain systems and different aspects of emotion and their sequelli. Emotions really exist on a range. I’m stating the obvious. From a normal sense of emotions, and then the extreme forms of those emotions. So I would posit that sadness, which is a very normal human experience, in its extreme, can lead to major depression. Can be a very important component of major depression.

Anger, which also is a very normal human emotion, when it reaches an extreme or an exaggerated form, can become unprovoked aggression. An angry orientation in all of our social interactions. Pleasure. Again, normal. In its extreme, it can lead to addiction. Fear, which of course, is appropriate in dangerous situations as a protective mechanism, in its exaggerated form, can lead to anxiety, different kinds of phobias, even panic attacks or panic disorder.

And worry, in itself, when it’s out of control, and when it’s extreme, can lead to generalized anxiety disorder. So we can really appreciate that the emotions shift and move along a continuum from normal to extreme.

Emotion and the brain

Well, we know when people have different emotions it manifests in brain circuitry. And specifically, different functional areas. In this case, really the focus over the past several decades has been on the emotion-related brain circuitry in the limbic system, which is really a distributed set of brain nodes or brain regions that function together to have the experience of emotions, and maybe even to generate emotion experience. And to detect what’s personally salient and emotionally significant for us.

So this is happening in a distributed brain system. What you see here in bright red is the amygdala, the left and right amygdala, which is, as probably everyone here knows, is a very important node within this limbic system for emotions.

Here, just to flesh it out a little more, the limbic system really is made up of multiple brain areas, including the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and other brain regions. And even other paralimbic regions like the orbital frontal cortex. So we’re only beginning to really understand how these different brain circuitries contribute to different kinds of emotion and the ability to work with our emotions.

How do we actually measure emotion?

So, having said that, how do we actually measure emotion? Well, many, many different ways.

One way, as you see here, is actually taking first-person, subjective emotion experience from moment to moment to moment. Here you can see it’s actually oscillating from neutral to amused to sad, and this is being induced by watching film clips. So this is subjective emotion experience. First-person report. That’s one window into emotion.

Another way is using peripheral autonomic psychophysiology. Skin conductants, facial muscle contractions, heart rate, breathing rate– These are all autonomic psychophysiological measures that we can use.

Another way is literally looking at facial expressions. Of fear, for example. Another method is — which I will be talking about– is functional neuroimaging. Using, for example, brain imaging techniques to look at an index of neural activity.

Here it’s shown as bilateral amygdala. And then another method that’s relatively– Well, no, actually it’s been used for several decades– is literally putting a grid of electrodes right on the cortex to measure under the skull. And of course, this is an invasive procedure, so it’s only done, you know, during epilepsy. It’s not done to study emotions by itself. Not to worry.

Brain imaging techniques like fMRI, which I’ll talk about, is wonderful because we can go under the skull noninvasively. No harm. Just to drive home the point, when we talk about different emotions, this is one study we did where we had neutral, sad, and amusing film clips. Brain imaging, fMRI signal, what’s called “BOLD,” the blood oxygen level dependence signal.

First-person emotion ratings from moment to moment, heart rate, and then breathing rate or breathing intensity. And this is just to really make the point that this is a dynamic, interactive system. And this is only four channels. There are many other channels that we often look at– can look at as well. A full explanation of a phenomena would really go from looking at the genes or genetic contribution, to molecules, to neurons, neural circuitry, and then how different cognitive processes– thinking, decision making, emotion, behavior– are instantiated in those neural circuitry.

For today’s talk, I’m only going to be talking about the top two. But a full explanation really is from genetics all the way up to interpersonal interactions. And currently we have the technology to look at all of that. Many different modalities of functional brain imaging. There are many different tools. They all have their pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses.

What we’ll be looking at is– in the black box is referring to the orange circle– is fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging. So that gives us a signal on the order of seconds across the entire brain, and approximately we get the unit that we can analyze. It’s approximately two-three millimeters of voxels. So it has its pros and cons, but it’s noninvasive, and that’s what we use.

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Now, if no one here is– If you’ve not been in an MRI machine, essentially it’s a magnet. And it’s a beautiful, elegant machine, but it’s a magnet. And you can see that people are lying down on their back and we put them inside the bore of the magnet. And I’m going to give you a one-slide primer on the dependent variable in fMRI.

So you’re lying in the scanner, you have this angry, harsh, critical face, presented to you, you’re perceiving it. This sets off firing in specific populations of neurons that activate neural circuitry– distributed neural circuits– that then are consuming glucose and oxygen, send a signal downstream– “Hey, the neurons are firing,” send more cerebral blood volume, more blood flow, and specifically, more oxygenated hemoglobin and, glucose. So that the neurons can continue to fire and you can replenish what’s been used.

Then they do a lot of signal processing and statistics to create brain maps, which you’ve seen in magazines, I’m sure, to actually infer the underlying neural activity that’s occurring in response to looking at an angry face. And then we use functional– our knowledge of functional neural anatomy to try to infer what these different brain systems are doing in conjunction with specific experimental design to tease out the function of different brain activity. That’s a one-slide primer.

So, there are many ways to probe the brain. And specifically to look at the emotion-related brain regions in the limbic system. One way would be dynamic social feedback, so you can imagine a person in a video clip looking at you, going, “People don’t really like you.” That’s one method. Especially for people who are socially sensitive.

You could also use music. Studies have used both positive and really sad music to induce very rapid shifts in emotional state. And you can just check your own experience listening to different songs– Bruce Springsteen songs or whatever.

Another way as we’ve already shown is facial expressions, because we are super sensitive to the slightest shifts, whether we’re aware of it or not, in peoples’ facial expressions. Electric shock. A very powerful–especially the anticipation of the shock, even if you don’t deliver a shock, sets up all kinds of anxiety and fear and defensive responses that you can begin to measure in the brain.

Another method that’s closer to what we do in psychotherapy or clinical practice is peoples’ own negative self-beliefs. So, for example, “something is wrong with me.” Having that thought spinning in the mind can actually induce activity in the limbic system, and is really the basis of what we begin to work with in, — for people with depression and anxiety.

What are the core negative beliefs? So these are–this is just a sampling of different methods that can be used to probe the function of the limbic system. But then there’s a whole other part. This beautiful prefrontal cortex that is so fully developed in the human animals, which allows us to take perspective.

To think, to analyze, to use language. All in the service of emotion regulation. In what ways can we actually think in a certain way that helps to change the meaning of something that’s going on right now in our life. Or even right this moment. To change its intensity, to change its duration. To even shift our interpretation of what that emotion is doing and why we’re having it. That’s this prefrontal cortical area that allows us to make abstractions, think, take perspective, apply different strategies. But this is not new.

Almost two millennia ago, Marcus Aurelius said, “If you are distressed by anything external, or even internal, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it, and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” Profound, profound statement. Definition of emotion regulation. So it’s not a new phenomenon in human animals, it’s been here for thousands of years. But this is really something specific about our prefrontal cortex that allows us to work with these processes to modify our experience from moment to moment.

So, there are different stages of emotion regulation. And just, as I’m saying this, check your own experience. Pre-conscious. Are there proclivities or even cognioprocesses that are happening in the brain when a situation is occurring even before we are aware of it that’s influencing how we interpret our emotions, how we interpret our current situation? Then this leads to immediate attentional shifts when it bursts into conscious processing– Something scary is going on. There’s threat. Do I shift my attention to the source of threat? Social approach. Do I shift my attention away? Avoidance. Both of which are forms– can be forms of regulating my attention, and which thereby influences emotions.

Another aspect is emotion appraisal. How do I label that emotion? How do I interpret what that emotion is? And then cognitive reappraisal. Using our thinking and perspective-taking ability to change the meaning. “Oh, that’s not a source of threat, it’s only a stick or a rope, it’s not a snake.” “Oh, that person was only– was looking at somebody else, Not at me.”

And then finally, and more subtly, meta-cognitive. How I view how I process thinking. How I view my ability to create a space to understand how my mind works. So more meta-cognitive processes, which can– All of these things that we’re talking here can be trained. Through different practices.


Little bit about the neuroanatomy. Some wonderful work by Mary Phillips, Helen Mayburg, Wayne Drevets, Kevin Ochsner, on and on and on. Some fantastic neuroscientists who really have, in the past 10-15 years, begun to create models– brain anatomy and functional anatomy models of emotion reactivity and regulation.

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