Mapping discrete and dimensional emotions onto the brain: controversies and consensus

Trends Cogn Sci. 2012 Sep;16(9):458-66. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2012.07.006. Epub 2012 Aug 10.


A longstanding controversy in the field of emotion research has concerned whether emotions are better conceptualized in terms of discrete categories, such as fear and anger, or underlying dimensions, such as arousal and valence. In the domain of neuroimaging studies of emotion, the debate has centered on whether neuroimaging findings support characteristic and discriminable neural signatures for basic emotions or whether they favor competing dimensional and psychological construction accounts. This review highlights recent neuroimaging findings in this controversy, assesses what they have contributed to this debate, and offers some preliminary conclusions. Namely, although neuroimaging studies have identified consistent neural correlates associated with basic emotions and other emotion models, they have ruled out simple one-to-one mappings between emotions and brain regions, pointing to the need for more complex, network-based representations of emotion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anger / physiology
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Happiness
  • Humans
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Neural Pathways / physiology