Emotion and Cognition

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By: Courtny Franco and Daniel Greig

Often times when we discuss human nature and behavior, the “animal brain” vs. the “logical brain” argument becomes heated. But when we peel back the intricacies of the constructs, the argument boils down to two pillars of thought and behavior: cognition and emotion. While there is room to argument for other pillars to be raised, it appears that most of our behaviors and thought processes are dominated by either one of these two overarching concepts. We tend to think about our emotional self and our cognitive self as being two distinct entities, but is it true that these two pillars are actually discrete or irreconcilable? Or do they instead function in tandem with one another through a complex and interrelated neural network?

To begin this discussion we must first establish what it is we mean by these large and often times complex concepts. Cognition, it would seem, is what most would consider calculated thinking, something along the lines of the mechanical thought processes that do most of the “grunt-work” of our thinking. Cognition in the field of psychology is typically the realm of things like memory, language, attention, problem solving, and planning. Emotion, however, is a far more complicated concept to define. Some suggest that emotion is able to be boiled down to states that are brought on by rewards and punishments, whereas others provide a more comprehensive understanding where emotions are involved in the evaluations of things we encounter in our lives. Others suggest that these emotions come in tiers, with some being more basic such as fear or anger, and others being more involved such as pride and envy. With these concepts roughly defined we can immediately see that the differences between cognition and emotion are stark, though we must wonder from here how it is that these two relate.

The relationship between cognition and emotion does not necessarily conjoin them in the sense that they work alongside one another at the same time, instead they have something of a more conditional relationship. That is, there are no truly separate systems for emotion and cognition because complex cognitive-emotional behavior emerges from highly interactive and intertwined brain networks. We see this relationship among brain structures that are highly active during both emotional and cognitive processes.

Often in psychological research we try to find some connections to neurological frameworks in order to establish a sense of objective understanding for from where these behaviors come. For this reason, researchers have tried to find where, in a neurological sense, the centers for cognition and emotion are located.

Typically, we often link specific brain structures to emotion and others to cognition.  For example, it seems like common knowledge that the emotion “fear” is processed in the part of the brain called the Amygdala. Yet, this structure is not solely activated by emotional processes; existing research suggests that the amygdala also becomes activated during cognitive processes. Another structure is the hippocampus. This part of the brain is believed to play an important role in memory; however, it is also involved in regulating our emotions. Finally, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), is the part of the brain known for cognitive processes such as deductive and logical reasoning ability, attention, and learning.

However, cognition is not the only function to occur in this region of the brain. Overall, the left frontal cortices are involved in approach behavior while the right frontal cortices are associated with avoidance and motivation. Scientific evidence also suggests that people use their prefrontal cortex to process emotion in addition to deductive and logical reasoning. The occipital frontal cortex (OFC – part of the PFC) uses emotional outcomes to enhance our decision making. In addition, another part of the PFC called the anterior cingulate cortex is also involved in emotion regulation.


Perhaps the most stalwart example of cognition impacting emotion is within the practice of cognitive reappraisal. Emotional states form after we perceive some stimuli and begin to appraise it. This appraisal is our way of establishing how it is that this stimulus makes us feel, and from there we experience an emotional state relevant to our appraisal. Cognitive reappraisal is a practice of adjusting how it is that we appraise these stimuli. Imagine watching a scary movie and talking yourself down from a state of fear by simply reminding yourself that “it’s just a movie, none of this is real”. This sort of behavior is clearly capable of impacting our emotional states through language, and this interplay demonstrates that through cognitive methods we can adjust our emotions. This adjusting of emotions is often times called emotional regulation. It would seem on a more philosophical level that our capacity to even address how it is that we feel at any given time is through our language; when we experience any sort of complicated emotion we must unpack the feeling by describing it and how it makes us feel, which is inherently a cognitive, language-based behavior.

Thus, we may argue that it is the case with all emotions that in order to perceive them in any meaningful sense, we must catalogue and categorize what they are in order to fully grasp what it is that we are feeling; this in turn makes all emotional awareness in some ways a cognitive process. What makes this relationship between cognition and emotions such an intriguing one is the degree with which we may control the emotional states we encounter by how it is that we appraise and break down the stimuli we are experiencing. If we take all of this into account, it seems clear that both are necessary and interwoven in a way that creates a seamless and yet dynamic experience of feelings and thought.

What does the hippocampus do?

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By Christopher Simmons and Cameron MacDonald

Our brain enables us to do many things, from using tools to recognizing our siblings’ voices. However, we aren’t gifted with the ability to do everything right off the bat. When it comes to using our brain for activities like driving a car or throwing a football, we rely on skills and techniques that we have developed over time rather than an instinct. As we experience new things our brain changes to reflect our need to react to and evolve with these new types of experiences. In other words, we live, and we learn, and as we learn we get better at responding to these types of experiences. The more you throw a football or drive your car the more efficient you become. The changes that our brain goes through during our experiences are stored for later recall resulting in the creation of memory.

Often, when someone talks about memories, they’re referring to personal experiences or facts- like I had eggs for breakfast or that grandma smells like cedar wood and mothballs. In psychology we refer to memories such as these as episodic memories. Much like an episode of a show, these memories are an account of the events that happened during a specific time period. However, episodic memory is merely one small slice of the full memory pie.

Episodic memories are a form of declarative memory. Declarative memories are any memory that you could describe out loud- like what you were wearing when you last visited your family or the fact that four quarters make a dollar. Now, when you describe how grandma smells you may be thinking of a specific time when you almost choked on the smell of grandma as she hugged you, but odds are you aren’t remembering the first time you learned to make change when you think of how many quarters are in a dollar. You simply know that it’s true. This is a semantic memory or “fact”, the other form of declarative memory.

There are non-declarative forms of memory, as well. The most prevalent of these is procedural memory- more commonly called “skills”. While you may remember that red means “stop” and green means “go” as a fact when you’re driving, most of the process of driving a car happens without any explicit thought- you don’t think about moving your foot to the accelerator when the traffic light turns green, and you definitely don’t do so when swerving out of the path of a hazard. Yet there was a time when your brain was incapable of these things. You had to learn them over time through repetition.

One could argue that such a rationalization is not evidence that these are different processes, however, without experiencing what someone else is thinking, how could we know if they aren’t thinking about Mrs. Watson’s first grade money lecture? Well, while neuroscience doesn’t let us explore other’s memories yet, researchers have been confident for quite a long time that this is the case- largely thanks to a patient referred to as H.M.

H.M. suffered from terrible seizures. While not as advanced as neurological tools are today, doctors of his time were able to pinpoint his seizures’ origin to a specific portion of the brain, at the “medial temporal lobe” (which is the point roughly between your ears, and an inch or two inwards). To alleviate the seizures, the doctors performed an experimental surgery where they removed that portion of the brain. While his symptoms lessened, the doctors quickly realized that there was a serious side-effect of the surgery. H.M. had anterograde amnesia- that is, he was unable to create new declarative memories.

He was, however, able to learn new skills. Researchers trained H.M. to draw from a mirror, and while he struggled as much as any healthy person at first, he gradually became better with each trial. Yet, every time, he was confident he would perform terribly and had no recollection of ever doing the task before. This has inspired researchers and laid the groundwork for our understanding of how the brain creates memories.

A portion of the brain that was cut out of H.M. is a structure called the “hippocampus” (named because it’s shaped like a seahorse (Latin name: hippocampus), which we now know is a very important structure in the formation of declarative memory. For a long time, we’ve had a very rigid understanding of the relationship between types of memory- that the hippocampus helps us encode events and facts as relationships between areas in the brain, but that it has very little to do with skills or how we interact with our environment We’re starting to find out that this might be entirely wrong.

A recent study by (Voss et al., 2011) examined a phenomenon where people who actively engage unconstrained exploration during a memory task performed better than those who passively viewed the exploration. In their study, Voss and colleagues presented participants with a grid made up of different images. After viewing the grid, participants were asked to look at a variety of images and discern which ones had appeared in the grid and which ones had not, as well as place the images into their proper places in a blank grid. The participants were divided into several groups that were allowed differing levels of freedom when examining the grid. All participants viewed the grid one square at a time through a viewing window, but only some of them could control the viewfinder. Voss et al. found that those viewers who had control over their exploration performed better than those who were made to passively sit and watch as the view finder moved around on its own. The researchers compared the results of normal healthy individuals to those with damage to their hippocampus. These individuals suffered from memory problems and to control for that only had to complete a much smaller grid. Those with damaged hippocampi actually performed worse when under their own volition. This suggests that the benefits of volition on learning and memory performance is dependent on a fully functioning hippocampus.

The researchers took their study a step further by also using fMRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the neural activity of participants’ hippocampi and other brain areas during their performance in either the active or passive groups. Groups that could freely explore were said to have volitional control whereas the passive viewing groups did not have volitional control. Further, researchers previously identified other areas of the brain that were central to executive control, and none of the hippocampal damaged participants had any damage in those areas! The brains of the volitional control group were found to have an increased connection with the bilateral dorsolateral and medial prefrontal cortex, left ventrolateral parietal cortex, and left cerebellum which are all just names for areas of the brain that are involved executive control of attention.  The prefrontal, parietal, and cerebellar areas mentioned above have been identified as part of a neural network that helps to optimize learning and memory. This suggests that the hippocampus may have a role in coordinating these parts of the brain during memory encoding and retrieval.

One possible explanation for this is that the hippocampus is important for providing associative context for our different brain activities. In other words, it helps connect the part of the brain that is in charge of understanding where your body is in space with another part that is in control of the motor functions of movement. This could be by virtue of the hippocampus’s role in recognition. If your hippocampus is able to match a current activity to a past experience, this could play a role in learning new applications of existing skills. Another explanation put forth by Voss et al. (2011) is that the hippocampus helps provide feedback on how well you’re performing at an activity. Through comparison to previous experiences, the brain is able to assess how well it is performing at the current one. We call this “feedback” in cognitive psychology, which is known to enhance the development of new skills. But much of this is speculation. What’s your theory?

The Sex-Appeal of Neuroscience

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As someone who uses neuroscience in my research, I frequently get asked by students if they can do projects that involve brain data in my lab. Yes, neuroscience is cool and a rapidly growing area of psychology research, but just because research involves data that comes from the brain does not make it better research than data from basic behavior, surveys, or other measures. So I always have to ask the student, “Why would adding this neuroscience measure contribute something to the study that other measures can’t tell us?” This can often be a stumper.

So, how do we know when using neuroscience contributes something valuable to research?

According to the article attached to this post, you need a significant amount of training to not be called in by the sirens of neuroscience. What can be done about this as we train undergraduates and graduates in psychology? A very small percentage of our students will actually end up in fields of neuroscience, but I do believe that all psychology students should be able to read, comprehend, and evaluate neuroscience research to remain current and competitive in our field.

What are your thoughts?

– Dr. Aminda O’Hare

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