“Right now, the field and even popular culture writes about the brain as if specific psychological events are localized to specific brain tissues,” Barrett said. “So, for example, when you have a memory it happens in the hippocampus and when you have fear it happens in the amygdala.
Barrett’s findings suggested the exact opposite.
Her Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory completed a meta-analysis of thousands of data points from hundreds of studies between the years 1990 and 2005. The findings suggest that brain regions once thought to be specifically and consistently associated with particular emotions are in fact active across a variety of emotional — and even non-emotional — states.
“These data suggest that the brain is populated by a set of basic operations, or ingredients, that are not specific to emotions or thoughts or memories,” Barrett said.
The amygdala, for example, which Barrett said is one of the most connected regions in the brain, doesn’t fire only when a person experiences fear, but whenever the brain doesn’t have enough information about what to do next. Sometimes, but not always, we subjectively experience this uncertainty as fear, Barrett said.
Related: "Neural reuse: Yay, team brain" (past post at this blog).