Is the brain activity elicited by emotion linked to wellbeing?

Stuck at home due to lockdown? How do you feel? Frustrated and angry? Or calm and relaxed knowing that staying at home is the best and quickest way to get out of this situation? The way we process our emotions is crucial in maintaining our mental health and wellbeing. Numerous studies have shown that the better you are at reframing a negative situation into a positive one, the higher your level of wellbeing. However, what has been missing so far is the neural bases of this association – is the brain activity elicited by emotion linked to wellbeing?

New research by the Gatt Resilience Lab at NeuRA examined this question using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the TWIN-E cohort, consisting of 230 twin participants who were instructed to look at various emotional faces (happy, sad, fear, angry, disgust, and neutral) while lying in the MRI scanner. We found that neural activity elicited by happy faces in the right frontal part of the brain (inferior frontal gyrus) was significantly associated with wellbeing (measured by the COMPAS-W questionnaire). This suggests that there is an underlying neural mechanism that provides a link between positive emotion processing and wellbeing. Interestingly, no links between wellbeing and any of the negative emotions were found – we speculate that there is an inherent difference between positive and negative emotion processing, and that happy faces have a recognition advantage, which benefits our wellbeing. Therefore, it seems that individuals who react strongly to happy faces may have a positivity bias that leads them to be more attentive to positive stimuli, which in turn contributes to their overall wellbeing, or vice versa.

Another interesting question about this neural activity underlying positive emotion processing is whether it has a genetic or an environmental basis. We can use a twin design to investigate this by comparing similarities in monozygotic twins (who share 100% of their genes) to dizygotic twins (who share 50% of their genes). If a certain trait is more similar in monozygotic twins, then we can surmise that the trait has some genetic basis. In our twin sample, we found that the brain region activated by happy faces (inferior frontal gyrus) has a heritability estimate of 20%. This tells us that about 20% of the neural activity for happy faces we observe is due to genetic factors, which adds to other evidence that genes play a role in influencing positive emotion processing. Finally, we also found that the link between brain activity and wellbeing is almost 100% accounted for by unique environmental factors – that is, even though the brain activity itself is heritable, the association between this activity and wellbeing mainly depends on experiences that are unique to each twin, such as major illness or peer groups that are not shared between siblings. So, it may be that individuals who are frequently exposed to positive environments are biased towards processing positive emotions, which then has cascading effects on higher wellbeing. Or, it could also be that given a particular (i.e., positive) environment, someone with higher levels of wellbeing show a disposition towards greater brain activity in response to positive emotional stimuli.

In sum, our research shows that there may be a mutual relationship between emotion and wellbeing, and suggests that positive emotion processing may play an important role in optimal mental health. Importantly, unique life events seem to be able to influence both this neural response to positive emotion as well as levels of wellbeing. So, the next time you feel frustrated about being in lockdown, try and turn the negative into a positive. It will be a great boost to your wellbeing.

To read the research paper please click here