The insula effect: excerpt from Blakeslee’s book

The excellent science writer Sandra Blakeslee, has co-authored a book with her son, titled “The Body has a Mind of its Own” and an excerpt from the same is available on the Dana foundations website (as part of Cerebrum). The excerpt talks about right frontal insula and how that region is used to map the interoceptive physical sensations and how that also leads to an emotional map. the book seems promising from the excerpt.

One of the experiments involved subjects monitoring their heartbeats and those who could do this well also had high emotional intelligence.

But the most signi?cant ?nding in Critchley’s study involved just one brain region, the right frontal insula. This area showed the greatest activity in those who were best at following their heartbeats. Moreover, these were the people who scored highest on a standardized questionnaire to probe their empathy levels. So the better you are at tracking your own heartbeats, Critchley says, the better you are at experiencing the full gamut of human emotions and feelings. The more viscerally aware, the more emotionally attuned you are.

Your right frontal insula “lights up” when you feel all the quintessential human emotions—love, hate, lust, disgust, gratitude, resentment, self-con?dence, embarrassment, trust, distrust, empathy, contempt, approval, disdain, pride, humiliation, truthfulness, deceit, atonement, guilt. It also “lights up” when you feel strong sensations, from physical pain to a ?uttery stomach to tingling loins.

This dual physical-emotional sensitivity is not just a coincidence. The right frontal insula is where conscious physical sensation and conscious emotional awareness coemerge. Consider this amazing fact: The right frontal insula is active both when you experience literal physical pain and when you experience the psychic “pain” of rejection or the social exclusion of being shunned. It lights up when you feel someone is treating you unfairly. Scanning experiments have proven all this, and the results are profound. Welcome to one of the most important regions in the human brain.

The finding that both emotional and interoceptive maps are represented in the same brain region is definitely an important clue to the mysteries of how our emotions work.

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