What is your emotional state? Are you happy or sad, feeling lust or disgust? For the first time, scientists can successfully identify people’s emotions by reading brain activity patterns!

Researchers combined functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) imaging with computer modeling to map what emotions the subject is experiencing.

Given that emotional disturbances lie at the center of various psychiatric conditions, the findings could be used to help treat patients with depression, autism, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and many other conditions.

Lead author Karim Kassam, assistant professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Pa., said, “This research introduces a new method with potential to identify emotions without relying on people’s ability to self-report. It could be used to assess an individual’s emotional response to almost any kind of stimulus, for example, a flag, a brand name or a political candidate.”

Study details
The researchers developed the technique by enrolling 10 actors from CMU’s drama school. They were asked to randomly and repeatedly run through the gamut of nine emotional states — anger, disgust, fear, happiness, lust, pride, envy, sadness and shame. During the process, experts monitored their brains by functional MRI.

Co-author George Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology, said, “Our big breakthrough was my colleague Karim Kassam’s idea of testing actors, who are experienced at cycling through emotional states. We were fortunate, in that respect, that CMU has a superb drama school.”

In order to ensure that the scans were measuring the actual emotion and not trying to induce the act, scientists also flashed 24 images of neutral and disgusting photos across the participants’ screens.

The results were then fed into a program designed to use the information to “learn” the various emotion the subjects were feeling based on photos they saw. When the model was tested on a new person, the computer was found to guess their emotions with a 71 percent “rank accuracy.”

“Despite manifest differences between people’s psychology, different people tend to neurally encode emotions in remarkably similar ways,” said co-author Amanda Markey, a graduate student in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences.

The research, sponsored by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health appears in the June issue of the journal PLoS One.

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