New research suggests that the human brain is able to represent subjective emotional responses as a “standard code.” The study, which is available for download from the Cornell University website, shows that similar subjective feelings, including those felt by different people, result in the same types of interaction in the human brain.

Brain Emotions

The study, which is called  “Population coding of affect across stimuli, modalities and individuals,” and published online in Nature Neuroscience, concentrated on whether or not a subject found the subjective experience good or bad, an attribute that psychologists call valence. The brain interpreted good feelings according to a similar set pattern and a mirroring pattern existed for negative feelings according to the results of the experiments.

Cracking the human code

The studies lead author, Dr. Adam Anderson of Cornell University, wrote “We discovered that fine-grained patterns of neural activity within the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with emotional processing, act as a neural code which captures an individual’s subjective feeling.”

According to the paper “It appears that the human brain generates a special code for the entire valence spectrum of pleasant-to-unpleasant, good-to-bad feelings, which can be read like a ‘neural valence meter’ in which the leaning of a population of neurons in one direction equals positive feeling and the leaning in the other direction equals negative feeling”

The researchers also showed that pleasure derived from different senses are processed by the brain in similar ways in human beings, and speculated that internal subjective experience may be an important part of the brain’s sensory apparatus rather than a purely emotional attribute.The most important conclusion of the work is the evidence that pleasure and pain are the same across humans, giving a firmer basis for empathy in the scientific world.

Breaking down empathy

According to Anderson “If you and I derive similar pleasure from sipping a fine wine or watching the sun set, our results suggest it is because we share similar fine-grained patterns of activity in the orbitofrontal cortex.” That means that, according to this experiment at least, pleasure is a distinct response to something that our brain sees as good, not something that differs depending on stimulus.

“Despite how personal our feelings feel, the evidence suggests our brains use a standard code to speak the same emotional language,” is the heart of the major conclusion of the research. The existence of a standard code that describes the subjective feeling of pain or pleasure may find use in many other areas of neuroscience.