Dissociable neural systems for recognizing emotions

Brain Cogn. 2003 Jun;52(1):61-9. doi: 10.1016/s0278-2626(03)00009-5.


This study tested the hypothesis that the recognition of emotions would draw upon anatomically separable brain regions, depending on whether the stimuli were static or explicitly conveyed information regarding actions. We investigated the hypothesis in a rare subject with extensive bilateral brain lesions, patient B., by administering tasks that assessed recognition and naming of emotions from visual and verbal stimuli, some of which depicted actions and some of which did not. B. could not recognize any primary emotion other than happiness, when emotions were shown as static images or given as single verbal labels. By contrast, with the notable exception of disgust, he correctly recognized primary emotions from dynamic displays of facial expressions as well as from stories that described actions. Our findings are consistent with the idea that information about actions is processed in occipitoparietal and dorsal frontal cortices, all of which are intact in B.'s brain. Such information subsequently would be linked to knowledge about emotions that depends on structures mapping somatic states, many of which are also intact in B.'s brain. However, one of these somatosensory structures, the insula, is bilaterally damaged, perhaps accounting for B.'s uniformly impaired recognition of disgust (from both static and action stimuli). Other structures that are damaged in B.'s brain, including bilateral inferior and anterior temporal lobe and medial frontal cortices, appear to be critical for linking perception of static stimuli to recognition of emotions. Thus the retrieval of knowledge regarding emotions draws upon widely distributed and partly distinct sets of neural structures, depending on the attributes of the stimulus.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Affect / physiology*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / virology*
  • Cognition Disorders / diagnosis
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Cognition Disorders / virology*
  • Encephalitis, Herpes Simplex / complications*
  • Facial Expression
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed