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Logic Takes Over When Emotion Fails

Brain's Logic Area Takes Charge During Emotional Confusion
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 20, 2006 -- In the face of emotional confusion, the brain calls on logic to override its emotional center.

That's the finding of a brain study published in Neuron.

Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, and colleagues studied 19 healthy volunteers -- 10 women and nine men -- who were, on average, about 26 years old.

Etkin did the study while working towards his MD-PhD degree at New York's Columbia University. He's since graduated and been assigned to Stanford University for his psychiatry residency and research.

Researchers showed the volunteers a series of photos of people with happy or scared faces. The words "happy" or "fear" were printed over those faces.

The participants' job: Look at the faces, ignore the printed words, and describe the face as happy or fearful.

That might sound easy, but there was a twist. Some of the happy faces had "fear" printed across them, and some of the fearful faces had "happy" stamped on them.

That contradiciton -- or "emotional conflict," in the researchers' words -- made participants hem and haw a bit in sizing up the photographed faces.

Participants also had their brains scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during the experiment.

Those scans showed that, as expected, emotions were processed by an area of the brain called the amygdala.

But when the photos contained the "emotional conflict," the amygdala took a backseat to another brain area, called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, which is more involved in logical thought.

It appears the brain lets the amygdala process straightforward emotions. But when the emotional waters are muddy, the rostral anterior cingulate cortex steps in and takes the reins.

The researchers say their findings may shed light on brain activity in psychiatric conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressiondepression, in which patients may have trouble resolving conflicting emotions.

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