Tuesday 13 December 2022

Emotions, Cognition, and Behaviour

Emotions Brain Forum

BrainCircle Italia and BrainCircle Lugano organised a series of events where women scientists presented their work on emotions in various cities from October 2021 to November 2022 (see full itinerary). The initiative, conceived by Viviana Kasam, was inspired by the work of Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi Montalcini who promoted the work of scientists worldwide and was interested in supporting research on the brain. 

Campus Biotech
Campus Biotech

The last stop of the itinerary was Geneva, where on 25th November 2022 the Emotions Forum featured an interdisciplinary programme of talks on the relationship between emotions and cognition, and emotions and behaviour. The event was hosted by the Centre for the Study of Affective Sciences in the stunning Campus Biotech.

Eva Illouz, Professor of Sociology in Paris and Jerusalem, discussed the role of emotions in democracy. Eva started from Adorno's idea that fascism is not alien to democracy but is like a worm in the apple: we don't see it but it rots the fruit from the inside. Only emotions shape motivation and compete with self-interest. Emotions are neither rational nor irrational: they are responses to social conditions that come in the form of collective narratives that offer solutions to predicaments. Democracy is under attack from nationalist populism. People feel alienated from institutions. 

What characterises populism is a combination of four emotions:

  1. fear of destruction of the state, leading to tyranny;
  2. disgust of minorities, leading to racism;
  3. anger against enemies, leading to discrediting adversaries;
  4. love for one's country, leading to a common culture of patriotism.

Hermona Soreq's photo
Hermona Soreq

Hermona Soreq, Professor of Molecular Neuroscience at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, talked about the hidden long-term impact of traumatic experiences. Seneca said that the everyone is a slave of fear and indeed we are all susceptible to fear. What is the impact of fear on people? People who experience earthquakes have bad health and die earlier. Why? 

Hermona's research found that living in a traumatic environment, for instance one where the person is severely affected by terror, causes changes in health that can be measured by merely taking the person's pulse regularly over a period of time. For instance, when people have more traumatic experiences, their heart beat increases, and this reflects a higher risk for heart attack. In the series of studies Hermona presented, the effects of different emotions (such as stress) were observed and interesting differences were noticed between men's and women's health which has important implications for clinical practice.

Julie Peron
Julie Peron

Julie Peron is both a clinical and an academic based at the University of Geneva and is Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology. Julie talked about a long-covid project where she observed that prevalence of cognitive disorders and fatigue have increased in people who experienced COVID. This has a very negative impact on quality of life and productivity. 

Julie described a case study of a 50-year-old man who was hospitalised with COVID and as a consequences of this presented a series of problems, especially with memory, concentration, and emotion recognition. However, the man did not acknowledge such cognitive impairments and claimed his memory and concentration was fine. This is a case of anosognosia (denial of illness). The impact of viral infection on the central nervous system is well-known--but the conclusion from this study was specifically that self-monitoring is altered after COVID.

Geraldine Coppin
Geraldine Coppin

Geraldine Coppin looks at the psychology and neuroscience of olfactory world. She is a Senior Researcher at the University of Geneva and Unidistance Suisse. Her presentation was focused on the relationship between olfaction and emotions. Humans have incredible olfactory capacities and smell triggers vivid memories (the Proust effect). 

Odours are considered triggers of emotional reactions and have important functions: (1) they help us to avoid environmental hazard by identifying food; (2) they help us regulate our expectations (is it sweet or savoury? is it rotten or still fresh?); (3) they help us detect fire or gas or decaying matter; (4) they assist with social communication, helping us choose sexual partners and feel other people's emotions.

Carien Van Reekum
Carien Van Reekum

Carien Van Reekum is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Reading and she delivered a talk on being emotionally flexible. People differ in their emotional responses to the same situation. Does the situation determine our emotions? Not really: it is the meaning that I give to that situation that generates my emotional response. This is good news, because if the meaning is what counts, then we can modify the meaning and change our emotional response. 

Carien reported on a fascinating study where people trained to reappraise either the emotional context of feeling pain or the interpretation of their sensation felt less intense pain and this was shown not only in their self-reports but in the pain sensation itself. Although this flexibility can be preserved with ageing, when cognitive decline starts then the capacity to regulate our emotional responses also decreases.

I also presented at the Emotions Brain Forum event, and it was a great honour for me to participate in an initiative dedicated to Rita Levi Montalcini featuring so many women-in-science heroes. To learn more about what I discussed, please see this post, as I presented one aspect of our agency in mental health project, the idea that healthcare practitioners need to be empathetic and curious to preserve young people's sense of agency in clinical encounters.

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