Article image

Fascinating interplay between emotions and our sensory perception

In a quest to deepen our understanding of how our emotions are influenced by our sensory perception, a landmark study sheds light on the complex relationship between how we feel and how we perceive the world around us.

Whether it’s the panic incited by a scream, the unease of a shadow, or the delight brought by vibrant landscapes and lively music, our reactions are deeply rooted in sensory experiences. But do these reactions rely on specific senses, or is there a more abstract mechanism at work within our brains?

Published in Science Advances, this pioneering research was spearheaded by Italian neuroscientists from the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, in collaboration with the University of Turin.

Processing emotions with sensory perception

The team embarked on an exploration to determine whether our brains use sensory-specific or abstract codes to forge emotional experiences.

“Emotion and perception are deeply intertwined, yet understanding how the brain encapsulates emotional experiences has been a longstanding puzzle,” says Giada Lettieri, the study’s lead author and a psychology researcher at the IMT School.

She adds, “Our study offers critical insights into how the brain organizes and interprets emotional information across various sensory modalities, influenced by past sensory experiences.”

Decoding emotional experiences

To dissect these mechanisms, the research involved showing the movie 101 Dalmatians to 50 volunteers, including individuals with typical sensory abilities, as well as those who are congenitally blind or deaf.

This diverse group allowed the scientists to track brain activity through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as participants processed the film’s plot, either by listening to its audio play or watching a silent version.

Further enriching this study, 124 additional participants were asked to watch the movie outside the scanner and record their emotional reactions, aiming to correlate these with the neural responses of people experiencing sensory deprivation.

Luca Cecchetti, the study’s senior author, emphasizes the value of including individuals with sensory deprivation, saying, “It enables us to untangle the sensory contributions to the neural underpinnings of emotions.”

Abstract codes: Emotions without perception

The findings are revolutionary. Emotions are represented in the brain beyond sensory experiences and modalities. The study identified a distributed network within the brain, spanning sensory, prefrontal, and temporal areas, that collectively encodes emotions.

Remarkably, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex plays a pivotal role, housing an abstract representation of emotions that transcends specific sensory experiences or modalities.

This abstract coding suggests that our emotional responses are not merely reactions to external stimuli but are instead generated by a brain wired to create emotional significance, independent of sensory input.

This discovery underscores the resilience and adaptability of the human brain, particularly in individuals with sensory deprivation.

Lettieri underscores the broader implications of this research. “In a society that often overlooks the sensory-deprived, it’s crucial to explore how mental faculties and their neural representations develop and refine without sensory input. This advances our understanding of emotion and the brain,” she concluded.

Implications and further study

In summary, this study dramatically enhances our understanding of the human brain’s capacity to process emotions independently of sensory perception.

By demonstrating that emotions can be abstractly coded within the brain, the research challenges previous assumptions about the direct reliance of emotional experiences on sensory perception.

This revelation broadens our grasp of emotional and perceptual interplay while emphasizing the adaptability and resilience of the human brain, especially in individuals with sensory deprivation.

As we continue to explore the depths of human emotion and perception, this study serves as a crucial stepping stone towards more inclusive and comprehensive models of brain function, promising to impact both scientific research and societal perceptions of sensory impairments.

The full study was published in the journal Science Advances.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day