This paper reviews the foundation for a role of the human anterior insular cortex (AIC) in emotional awareness, defined as the conscious experience of emotions. We first introduce the neuroanatomical features of AIC and existing findings on emotional awareness. Using empathy, the awareness and understanding of other people's emotional states, as a test case, we then present evidence to demonstrate: 1) AIC and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) are commonly coactivated as revealed by a meta-analysis, 2) AIC is functionally dissociable from ACC, 3) AIC integrates stimulus-driven and top-down information, and 4) AIC is necessary for emotional awareness. We propose a model in which AIC serves two major functions: integrating bottom-up interoceptive signals with top-down predictions to generate a current awareness state and providing descending predictions to visceral systems that provide a point of reference for autonomic reflexes. We argue that AIC is critical and necessary for emotional awareness.
Keywords: anterior insular cortex; bottom-up; emotional awareness; empathy; fMRI; meta-analysis; predictive coding; top-down.
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