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Body states such as hunger, fatigue, and illness exert powerful effects on our emotions and reactions to the world. The idea that the body’s ongoing physiological state shapes our experiences of emotion is just one line of research in Dr. Kristen Lindquist’s Carolina Affective Science Laboratory at UNC. Dr. Lindquist and her lab broadly investigate how the body, brain and social context work together to generate emotional experiences and help us perceive emotions in others.

For example, a recent paper with doctoral student Jenn MacCormack showed why people become “hangry” — that is, feel more irritable, stressed, or frustrated when hungry. Across three studies, Jenn and Dr. Lindquist showed that hunger influences emotions when people misunderstand the sensations associated with hunger—feelings of activation and unpleasantness—as experiences of anger, stress, and other negative emotions that are related to the immediate context. For instance, the hungrier participants in one study were, the more likely they were to rate ambiguous stimuli as unpleasant when those stimuli were viewed in the context of a negative (v. positive v. neutral) image. Hunger doesn’t automatically make people feel strong emotions — instead, people become emotional when they experience hunger in an unpleasant context (e.g., doing a frustrating task at work) and when their attention is focused on external events rather than their internal feelings. In another study, participants who were either hungry or satiated were asked to do a frustrating task. Hungry participants were more likely to report negative emotions such as stress and hatred in response to the task, but only when they weren’t paying attention to their own internal states. Those participants were also more likely to view the research assistant negatively. These studies reveal that even body states that are unrelated to the context at hand can shape our emotions, sometimes in ways that bias our perception of the world around us. In follow-up work, Jenn and Dr. Lindquist are examining the neural mechanisms of this effect by examining whether hunger and emotional experiences share underlying neural circuitry.

Another line of research examining the role of the body in emotion seeks to understand how bodily inputs in emotion shift across the adult age-span. Much research suggests that older adults experience more positive emotions, are less activated by stressors and interpersonal tensions, and better manage their feelings than younger adults. However, very little data explore how the aging body (i.e., peripheral nervous system) and brain contribute to such age-related changes in emotion. Jenn and Dr. Lindquist have new work suggesting that older adults may experience less intense emotions in part because they experience fewer bodily concomitants of emotions. For instance, older adults tend to describe and conceptualize their emotions as less rooted in internal bodily sensations when compared to younger adults. Jenn and Dr. Lindquist’s recent neuroimaging meta-analysis summarizes the literature on age-related differences in the brain basis of emotion and reveals that older adults indeed show less neural activity in brain regions that help generate and represent bodily changes and sensations relative to younger adults. These findings are consistent with the idea that older adults have less intense physiological reactions during emotions.

Overall, research in the Carolina Affective Science Laboratory is deepening our scientific understanding of the nature of emotions and how the body and brain can together interact to produce the myriad feelings that people experience. Dr. Lindquist and her laboratory members take a diverse multi-method approach to tackle these questions, using theory and methods from experimental social psychology, functional neuroimaging, peripheral psychophysiology, linguistics, and developmental science. By illuminating the mechanisms underpinning emotions, science and society can better understand how emotions change across the lifespan and how emotions become dysfunctional in mood disorders, addiction, and physical illness.

Dr. Lindquist is an Associate Professor in the Social Psychology Program and the Human Neuroimaging Group within the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC Chapel Hill. She is also affiliated with UNC Biomedical Research Imaging Center and the Neuroscience Curriculum in the School of Medicine. Learn more about the Carolina Affective Science Laboratory.

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