Mixed feelings are not a sign of brain wars

Mixed emotions are not the brain fighting with itself - Newsreel
Mixed emotions are a normal, stable brain activity rather than a battle in our minds. | Photo: Laura M (iStock)

Humans regularly experience mixed emotions. Sometimes in movies or cartoons it is depicted as having two different voices in the brain having an argument.

It turns out that mixed emotions are actually a thing. Rather than being the brain “flip-flopping”, our mind can actually experience two seemingly contrasting reactions simultaneously.

Researchers at the University of Southern California used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan 27 people watching an animated short film chosen to induce bittersweet mixed feelings.

They found that these mixed feelings created unique neural activity in the “amygdala and nucleus accumbens” areas of the brain.

This activity was different from the brain activity seen when a subject reported a purely positive or negative emotion.

“Not only did we find brain activity that was correlated with mixed emotions, but we found that it held steady over time,” study lead author Anthony Vaccaro, a postdoctoral researcher at the Neuroendocrinology of Social Ties Lab at USC Dornsife, said.

“You’re not ping-ponging between negative and positive. It’s a very unique, mixed emotion over a long period.”

In the research, the participants labelled when they had experienced positive, negative, and mixed feelings.

“Using hidden-Markov models, we found that various brain regions could predict the onsets of new feeling states as determined by self-report,” the research report said.

“The ability of the models to identify these transitions suggests that these states may exhibit unique and consistent neural signatures.

“This study is the first to demonstrate that subjectively reported changes in feelings induced by naturalistic stimuli can be predicted from fMRI and the first to show direct evidence for a neurally consistent representation of mixed feelings.”

More information can be found on the University of Southern California website.