AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 27, Number 2, 2018


When We’re Unsure How to Respond, How Does Our Brain Decide Whether a Situation is Pleasant or Not?

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and the University of Haifa, Israel, have identified neural mechanisms that help us understand whether a difficult and complex social situation is emotionally positive or negative. “When someone offends you while smiling, should your brain interpret it as a smile or an offense? The mechanism we found includes two areas in the brain that act almost as ‘remote controls’ that together determine what value to attribute to a situation, and accordingly which other brain areas should be on and which should be off,” explains Dr. Hadas Okon-Singer of the University of Haifa, one of the leaders of the study.

We are all familiar with the expression “we don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” referring to a situation that includes both positive and negative elements. But how does the brain actually desire “whether to laugh or cry”? Dr. Okon-Singer explains that previous studies have identified the mechanisms by which the brain determines whether something is positive or negative. However, most of these studies focused on dichotomous situations – the participants were submitted either to a completely positive stimulus (a smiling baby or a pair of lovers) or a completely negative one (a dead body). The present study sought to examine complex cases involving both positive and negative stimuli.


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