Neural correlates of a 'pessimistic' attitude when anticipating events of unknown emotional valence

Neuroimage. 2007 Jan 15;34(2):848-58. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2006.09.035. Epub 2006 Nov 16.


Since we do not know what future holds for us, we prepare for expected emotional events in order to deal with a pleasant or threatening environment. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense to be particularly prepared for the worst-case scenario. We were interested to evaluate whether this assumption is reflected in the central nervous information processing associated with expecting visual stimuli of unknown emotional valence. While being scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging, healthy subjects were cued to expect and then perceive visual stimuli with a known emotional valence as pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral, as well as stimuli of unknown valence that could have been either pleasant or unpleasant. While anticipating pictures of unknown valence, the activity of emotion processing brain areas was similar to activity associated with expecting unpleasant pictures, but there were no areas in which the activity was similar to the activity when expecting pleasant pictures. The activity of the revealed regions, including bilateral insula, right inferior frontal gyrus, medial thalamus, and red nucleus, further correlated with the individual ratings of mood: the worse the mood, the higher the activity. These areas are supposedly involved in a network for internal adaptation and preparation processes in order to act according to potential or certain unpleasant events. Their activity appears to reflect a 'pessimistic' bias by anticipating the events of unknown valence to be unpleasant.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Photic Stimulation