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Brain scans: the scientific measure of emotions

The innate curiosity to understand our body’s most complex organ has been fulfilled by using brain scans, delving deep into the mysteries of how the brain functions. A basic MRI has helped doctors and scientists look for conditions such as bleeding and swelling in the brain, tumours, damage from an injury, or a stroke. Not only being limited to physical changes in the brain being detected, measurements of emotions can also be detected through brain scans.

fMRI measures the magnetic fields associated with blood flow changes in the brain. When neurons fire, oxygen is used, blood flows to bring more oxygen, and magnetic fields subtly shift and are magnified and measured. Research has used fMRI to see how brain structures vary as they recall pleasant memories, sad moments, and scary scenes. The scans are then analysed to determine which part of the brain the signal is generated from. Emotion is a critical part of our lives, but scientifically speaking, it’s been very hard to pin down. Measures such as self-reporting are a more common method to pinpoint what emotions a person is feeling.

In a research done by CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, they conducted a study on a group of actors and they had to look at words associated with emotions. For example, disgust, envy, fear, pride, sadness, etc. The actors then had to try to bring themselves to feel the emotions expressed by the word, and they were monitored by fMRI. Based on the scans, a computer model was used to guess the emotion the actor was feeling, and they had accurately done so. Each emotion had a unique pattern that was identified. Scarily accurate “mind-reader”.

Other types of brain scans include CT scans - CT scans use X-rays to study the structure of the brain by producing images. They can show damaged structures in the brain which can help you work out why a specific function has been lost following an injury/ disease. Another type is PET scans – which use radioactive chemicals to highlight activity in the brain. They help to identify any unusual activity in the brain. For example, they can show if an area is more active or less active than normal when results are compared with results of a normal brain.

The subjective nature of human emotion, being studied through a biological approach, could bring much debate as to whether this is an appropriate method. However, the appropriate combination of different methods and approaches has brought us great scientific discoveries in many areas of academia, ones that we could not even have dreamt of in the past. Our understanding of human behavior and functioning has been enhanced by biopsychology, with the potential to have more contributions shortly.

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