The neural correlates of context driven changes in the emotional response: An fMRI study

PLoS One. 2022 Dec 30;17(12):e0279823. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0279823. eCollection 2022.


Emotional flexibility reflects the ability to adjust the emotional response to the changing environmental context. To understand how context can trigger a change in emotional response, i.e., how it can upregulate the initial emotional response or trigger a shift in the valence of emotional response, we used a task consisting of picture pairs during functional magnetic resonance imaging sessions. In each pair, the first picture was a smaller detail (a decontextualized photograph depicting emotions using primarily facial and postural expressions) from the second (contextualized) picture, and the neural response to a decontextualized picture was compared with the same picture in a context. Thirty-one healthy participants (18 females; mean age: 24.44 ± 3.4) were involved in the study. In general, context (vs. pictures without context) increased activation in areas involved in facial emotional processing (e.g., middle temporal gyrus, fusiform gyrus, and temporal pole) and affective mentalizing (e.g., precuneus, temporoparietal junction). After excluding the general effect of context by using an exclusive mask with activation to context vs. no-context, the automatic shift from positive to negative valence induced by the context was associated with increased activation in the thalamus, caudate, medial frontal gyrus and lateral orbitofrontal cortex. When the meaning changed from negative to positive, it resulted in a less widespread activation pattern, mainly in the precuneus, middle temporal gyrus, and occipital lobe. Providing context cues to facial information recruited brain areas that induced changes in the emotional responses and interpretation of the emotional situations automatically to support emotional flexibility.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging* / methods
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Young Adult

Grants and funding

This study was supported by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA-SE Neuropsychopharmacology and Neurochemistry Research Group), the Hungarian Brain Research Program (Grant: 2017-1.2.1-NKP-2017-00002), and the Hungarian Brain Research Program 3.0 (NAP2022-I-4/2022), and by the Hungarian National Research, Development and Innovation Office (Grant No. FK128614, K 143391). Project no. TKP2021-EGA-25 has been implemented with the support provided by the Ministry of Innovation and Technology of Hungary from the Hungarian National Research, Development and Innovation Fund, financed under the TKP2021-EGA funding scheme. DB was supported by the ÚNKP-20-3-II-SE-51 New National Excellence Program of the Ministry for Innovation and Technology from the source of the National Research, Development and Innovation Fund. The sponsors had no role in the design of study, in the collection, analysis, interpretation of data and in the writing the manuscript.