We’ve all had that moment: when you have an emotional outburst at your sister about one thing, but realize later that it’s really about simmering emotions from and earlier fight with your spouse. Researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are discovering what happens in the brain when we lose emotional control and take our feelings out on others — an effect called ’emotional spillover’ — and, for the first time, are able to pinpoint areas in the brain directly responsible.
Using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), a technique that produces a magnetic field that can temporarily “knock out” or inhibit activity in specific parts of the brain (not terrifying at all), the team discovered that when the lateral prefrontal area of the brain — a region known for emotional regulation, among other functions — was inhibited by the stimulation, participants showed less success controlling emotions and more emotional spillover. In the experiment, they measured this by collecting people’s ratings and first impressions of neutral faces they saw immediately after faces that were smiling (prompting positive emotions) or fearful (prompting negative emotions).
The findings are part of larger efforts to understand the complexity of the brain and what types of mental training or activities can best improve emotional management skills known to promote higher levels of well-being. TMS therapy is approved for depression by the FDA, and this work may shed light on why stimulating parts of the prefrontal cortex can help people in dealing with emotions that are negative.
“It was interesting because participants saw the emotional faces very briefly,” said Regina Lapate, a Center for Healthy Minds collaborator and current postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the work. “And when asked afterward, they didn’t think that they had been influenced by it in their ratings. Having their prefrontal cortex disrupted generated spillover onto their unrelated events that followed. Emotional spillover can happen without us being aware of it.”
The team discovered that when the lateral prefrontal cortex was intact (when the brain was not inhibited by TMS), the person did not show spillover when viewing subsequent neutral faces. And when the opposite occurred — when the lateral prefrontal cortex was inhibited by TMS — emotional spillover occurred more frequently and with greater intensity. Three days later, outside of the laboratory, participants still showed less control of emotional boundaries when asked to rate the same neutral faces again, suggesting that the negative emotional spillover can lead to long-lasting, biased first impressions.
“If your first impression of someone is formed when you’re experiencing emotional spillover from a previous context, that negative impression may stick,” Lapate adds.
In addition, research on mindfulness meditation has been suggested to improve emotion regulation and connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and more emotion-centered areas of the brain such as the amygdala. If scientists know that there’s a causal relationship between these areas of the brain, they can more accurately tailor interventions to target these areas and improve well-being.
In the meantime, get tips on how to get the most out of a 10-minute meditation so you don’t e-yell at your sister again. (But maybe send her an apology first.)
The findings of this research were published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.