Abstract

What is the basic structure of emotional experience and how is it represented in the human brain? One highly influential theory, discrete basic emotions, proposes a limited set of basic emotions such as happiness and fear, which are characterized by unique physiological and neural profiles. Although many studies using diverse methods have linked particular brain structures with specific basic emotions, evidence from individual neuroimaging studies and from neuroimaging meta-analyses has been inconclusive regarding whether basic emotions are associated with both consistent and discriminable regional brain activations. We revisited this question, using activation likelihood estimation (ALE), which allows spatially sensitive, voxelwise statistical comparison of results from multiple studies. In addition, we examined substantially more studies than previous meta-analyses. The ALE meta-analysis yielded results consistent with basic emotion theory. Each of the emotions examined (fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness) was characterized by consistent neural correlates across studies, as defined by reliable correlations with regional brain activations. In addition, the activation patterns associated with each emotion were discrete (discriminable from the other emotions in pairwise contrasts) and overlapped substantially with structure–function correspondences identified using other approaches, providing converging evidence that discrete basic emotions have consistent and discriminable neural correlates. Complementing prior studies that have demonstrated neural correlates for the affective dimensions of arousal and valence, the current meta-analysis results indicate that the key elements of basic emotion views are reflected in neural correlates identified by neuroimaging studies.

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