Tag Archives: emotion

A freaking AWEsome game

You will never see a Korean father more excited than when South Korea is playing in the World Cup. In my family, I have a cousin who trained to be on the U-13 South Korean national soccer team (until he got injured, unfortunately) and a dad whose dream is to attend a World Cup game one day. Coming from this household, you can imagine my pure joy and excitement when we were entering the stadium to watch the Women’s World Cup match between the USA and Chile this past Sunday at Parc des Princes. Yes, my dad was extremely jealous. As soon as we entered the metro station, hundreds of people fashioned in red, white, and blue were jam packed into those cars. I could not stop smiling, and it was the best experience being surrounded by fans who love their country. For the U.S. fans, we were on cloud nine as the team was already leading 3-0 by halftime. But even we, the Americans, could not help but be amazed at Christiane Endler throughout the entire 90 minutes of the game.

The amazing view from our seats at Parc des Princes

Christiane Endler is the goalkeeper for the Chile team. Wearing her green Captain band proudly on her arm, Endler is the first woman to captain Chile at a World Cup. Endler played incredibly against the formidable US team, which attempted 26 shots at the goal starting from minute one. But after reading an NY Times article that our professor sent to us, I got chills. The story of this Chilean heroine who rose up and is leading a team that wasn’t even on the FIFA rankings three years ago was so moving and inspiring. Her story is awesome. I experienced goosebumps while reading this article, and I started to think about what goes on in the brain when we experience feelings of awe.

Christiane Endler being a beast (NY Times)

Awe is a unique emotion. It can be associated with both positive and negative experiences and can be triggered by a vast range of stimuli and events. Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt suggest that awe experiences can be characterized by two phenomena: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation”. “Perceived vastness” meaning that we are experiencing something that seems greater than ourselves, and an experience that evokes a “need for accommodation” when it violates our normal understanding of the world (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). We experience awe when we hear the swell of a symphony, watch the climactic battle in “Avengers: Endgame” in an IMAX theater, or watching Endler save shot after shot at a Women’s World Cup game! To examine what goes on in the brain when people experience awe, a study by Guan et al. was conducted to assess the neural correlates of dispositional, or naturally induced, awe.

Fourty-two university students were given a survey that was measured by the Dispositional Positive Emotion Scale (DPES), which assessed the extent to which the subjects experience emotions in their daily lives, one of which was awe. They would rank statements like “I often feel awe” on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The researchers also used voxel-based morphology or VBM. Although this sounds complicated, simply put, VBM is an analysis technique that uses neuroimaging scans of the brain and compares it to a baseline template and then across subjects. Researchers use this method to examine neuroanatomical differences in the volume of different brain structures. In this case, they were looking at regional gray matter volume (rGMV), which consists of the brain’s nerve cell bodies. From the DPES scores and the brain images they acquired through VBM, the results indicated that the dispositional awe score was correlated with rGMV in several different brain regions:

  1. The first correlation was between rGMV and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This part of the brain is critical for adapting to sudden changes in the environment, early learning, and conscious attention (Allman et al., 2001; Shiota et al., 2017). The association between dispositional awe and the ACC could indicate that awe has an increased tendency to embrace cognitive accommodation and new knowledge. Additionally, the experience of awe leads people to shift their awareness and attention from day-to-day problems and towards the bigger picture away from their own personal self.
  2. Next, there are correlations with the middle/posterior cingulate cortex (MCC/PCC). The MCC is involved with reward emotional processing (Bush et al., 2002) and the PCC is involved in assessing self-relevant information (Scherpiet et al., 2014). This correlation may indicate that dispositional awe is ultimately a reward-related emotional experience.
  3. Lastly, they found a correlation with the rGMV in the medial temporal gyrus (MTG). This area is widely involved in the detection of incongruity and socioemotional regulation (Bartolo et al., 2006). The MTG plays a crucial role in the detection and resolution of incongruity in the process of experiencing socioemotional awe.

These results suggest that individual differences in dispositional awe involve multiple brain regions related to attention, conscious self-regulation, cognitive control, and social emotion. This study is the first to provide evidence for the structural neural basis of individual differences in dispositional awe.

The brain areas that correlate with dispositional awe (Guan et al., 2018)

The authors could have strengthened their experiment by having a larger and more diverse sample size. Although the college student population is accessible, gaining data from a wider age range would make their findings more generalizable. However, the VBM method that the authors used was able to look at several different brain structures at once, which was able to provide a very comprehensive overview of which brain structures were affected and strengthened the researchers’ conclusion. Overall, it was fascinating to learn more about how our brain processes feelings of awe. It would be interesting to learn more about how our physiological responses, like goosebumps, also have a relationship to neural circuits in our brain, and if different external stimuli have different effects, i.e. our response to awe in music versus a sports match. Huge thank you to Dr. Frenzel who got us this opportunity to attend this AWEsome game. I cannot wait to experience more awe as we close out our final two weeks here in Paris!

Happy faces after the WIN!!!!


Allman, J. M., Hakeem, A., Erwin, J. M., Nimchinsky, E., and Hof, P. (2001). The anterior cingulate cortex. Ann. N Y Acad. Sci. 935, 107–117. doi: 10.1111/j. 1749-6632.2001.tb03476.x

Bartolo, A., Benuzzi, F., Nocetti, L., Baraldi, P., and Nichelli, P. (2006). Humor comprehension and appreciation: an FMRI study. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 18, 1789–1798. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.11.1789

Bush, G., Vogt, B. A., Holmes, J., Dale, A. M., Greve, D., Jenike, M. A., et al. (2002). Dorsal anterior cingulate cortex: a role in reward-based decision making. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U S A 99, 523–528. doi: 10.1073/pnas.012470999

Keltner, D. J., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 297–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930302297

Guan F, Xiang Y, Chen O, Wang W, Chen J (2018) Neural basis of dispositional awe. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 12:1-7

Scherpiet, S., Brühl, A. B., Opialla, S., Roth, L., Jäncke, L., and Herwig, U. (2014). Altered emotion processing circuits during the anticipation of emotional stimuli in women with borderline personality disorder. Eur. Arch. Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci. 264, 45–60. doi: 10.1007/s00406-013-0444-x

Shiota, M. N., Thrash, T. M., Danvers, A., and Dombrowski, J. T. (2017). Transcending the Self: Awe, Elevation and Inspiration. Available online at: http://www.psyarxiv.com/hkswj.

Smith R (2019) Chile Goalkeeper Equal to the Task, if Not to the Team. The New York TimesAvailable at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/16/sports/christiane-endler-chile.html

Georgia On My Mind

White earplugs hang from the ears of every person in my view. Surrounded by people from all sides, I heard a mixture of different songs, different artists, and different genres echo in the quiet metro. Every day, at 8:55 AM I  got on the metro at La Motte-Picquet- Grenelle and 16 stops later, I  got off at Ledru-Rollin, where my classes are. Even though I  saw different people rushing in and out of the metro, I never failed to spot the white earphones or ear pods in people’s ears.

The Metro line M8 taken from La Motte-Picquet- Grenelle station and the 16 stops before arriving to Ledru-Rollin station (the start and stop are identified by the red boxes).

On the streets of Paris, people of various ages walked to the beat of their songs pumping in their ears. So why are Parisians infatuated with music?

A picture of a Parisian on the metro listening to music.

It turns out that our brain interprets music as a pleasant and rewarding experience (Ferreri et al., 2019). In scientific terms, a well-known neurotransmitter, dopamine, is a chemical substance that is released by neurons when we experience pleasure. An experiment performed by Ferreri et al., 2019 studied the role of dopamine on feelings of pleasure and motivation to listen to music. They did that by  having volunteer participants receive orally either a chemical that enhances dopamine, prevents dopamine, or does not affect dopamine in their brains while they listen to music. The results show that the participants who  take the dopamine enhancer  have increased feelings of pleasure and motivation to listen to music, while the opposite effects are seen for individuals who  take the dopamine inhibitor. So, people like Parisians who listen to music experience a rush of pleasure. A simple analogy is that an individual’s brain reacts similarly when listening to music as it does if that individual takes potent drugs, such as cocaine.

The one thing that is constantly surrounding us anywhere in the world is music, whether we are at a supermarket, a café, or a mall. We are constantly being stimulated by music as it is becoming an integral part of every culture. Not only does it touch our mood and emotions, but also it influences our thoughts. Have you ever listened to a song and started to think about all your future life decisions? Of a memory with your friends? Of the challenges you have been through?

Well, researchers show that stronger emotions are experienced when we involve our personal memories  while listening to music whether we find it pleasant or unpleasant (Maksimainen et al., 2018). When we enjoy a song, our memories of certain events heighten our emotional response. This is why when we listen to our favorite song, we start remembering things that happened to us and we feel like we are experiencing these emotions again. But wait, there’s more…music affects parts of the brain that are involved in processing information that go beyond our emotions.  One study examines a circuit of 3 main networks in the brain of preterm compared to full term newborns (Lordier et al., 2019). The findings revealed that preterm infants who are introduced to music in the intensive care unit at the hospital have significantly more connections in the orange and blue networks compared to preterm infants who were not exposed to music. The brain regions involved in the orange network are the superior frontal gyrus, the auditory cortex, and the sensorimotor area, which are involved in cognitive control, auditory processing and motor control, respectively. The brain regions involved in the blue network are the thalamus, precuneus, and parahippocampal gyrus, which are involved in processing information from our senses, recall of memories and encoding and retrieval of memories, respectively. The important take away is that preterm infants who are exposed to music have brain networks that develop more similarly to full term newborns. This means that music plays a role in enhancing our brain networks, which indirectly affects higher cognitive functions.

An image of the brain that shows the networks of interest in the Lordier et al. (2019) study.

Now, as I stand in the metro unlike my first day in Paris, I am the one with the white earphones hanging from my ears. As I listen to country and pop songs, I enjoy every moment of my metro ride instead of counting the minutes  till I reach my destination. I am relaxed, experiencing my own rush of pleasure. Each song evokes in me a different memory, a different feeling than the last. Listening to Ray Charles, Georgia on my mind, I reminisce about my experiences in Atlanta.  Music, a part of our daily lives that we often disregard, actually has a strong influence on our brain network and emotional experiences.

An image of me on the metro with my earphones in, listening to music after spending 2 weeks in Paris.


Lordier, L., Meskaldji, D., Grouiller, F., Pittet, M., Vollenweider, A., & Vasung, L. et al. (2019). Music in premature infants enhances high-level cognitive brain networks. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 201817536. doi:10.1073/pnas.1817536116

Ferreri, L., Mas-Herrero, E., Zatorre, R., Ripollés, P., Gomez-Andres, A., & Alicart, H. et al. (2019). Dopamine modulates the reward experiences elicited by music. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences116(9), 3793-3798. doi:10.1073/pnas.1811878116

 Maksimainen, J., Wikgren, J., Eerola, T., & Saarikallio, S. (2018). The Effect of Memory in Inducing Pleasant Emotions with Musical and Pictorial Stimuli. Scientific Reports8(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-018-35899-y

Name that Painting

Bonjour from France! I am so excited to be posting my first blog here in Paris. I have had such an amazing first week and a half. This city is so beautiful and has so much to offer. One of the parts of Paris I was so excited for before coming here was the art. Paris is known for its beautiful art and amazing museums. One of my favorite artists is Van Gogh (cliché, I know. But his paintings are beautiful). So you can imagine my excitement when we had the opportunity to go as a group to the L’Atelier des Lumières. This is a beautiful experience where art is projected onto the walls of the room, with background music and movement as opposed to the normal still painting. One of the exhibits is called Van Gogh Starry Night, and it includes many of his different paintings come to life before your eyes.

The Olive Trees by Van Gogh at L’Atelier des Lumières

One of the things that has always fascinated me most about Van Gogh’s paintings, and post-impressionist paintings in general, is the ability for us to recognize the scene even though it is never perfectly clear. I realized this is an amazing task that our mind is able to achieve through object recognition. Object recognition is just what it sounds like, but the mechanisms supporting it are very complicated, interesting, and intricate. Object recognition calls on many regions including the visual cortex as well as many structures in the temporal lobe of the brain (Bar et al., 2001). Object recognition calls on bottom-down processing, which is a process in which we receive visual information and then call on higher processes to understand the full picture. However, it has also been observed that top-down processing is more important than previously realized. Top-down processing is when higher functions, or previously stored information, affects the perception we are creating. For example, our memory can have an effect. Our brain takes information from our memory system to fully fill in the details of the image we are looking at (Bar et al., 2007). This may explain why I could recognize which painting was being displayed in the exhibit even before it was fully in my view.

Only Part of Starry Night shown at L’atelier des Lumières

Along with this, partially analyzed images or incomplete images can be recognized before all of the information is received (Bar, 2003). This is why even when an object in a Van Gogh painting isn’t blurry or not the full picture, we can still recognize the scene in front of us.

Wheatfield with Crows by Van Gogh. The image is blurry and a bit unclear, but you can still tell what it is.

Another fascinating thing about object recognition is the emotion we feel when viewing certain objects. I am sure everyone has an experience with art that has made them feel some sort of emotion, as I did at the L’Ateliers exhibit. Before studying this topic, I would assume that the emotion we feel comes after we are able to detect an object. However, there are multiple studies that now say our emotions can actually affect our final perception of an object. One study says that our prediction of an object includes its relevance and value, before we are consciously aware of the object we are observing (Barret and Bar, 2009). Another study expanded on this, looking at our emotional perception of faces and the way it can be influenced without our knowledge. If a happy or negative face is shown quickly and not entering consciousness, then we will perceive a neutral face shown directly after as having more emotion (Siegel et al., 2018).

This was very interesting to me, because it means the context or environment around us, or even the mood that we are in, may completely change our perception of an object. The feeling that I perceive when looking at Van Gogh’s Starry Night will be different than someone else’s. Also, as stated above, our different memories and experience could change the way in which we perceive the painting as well.

It is amazing what our brain is able to accomplish. Not only are we able to recognize objects before we have the entire picture, but our emotional processing of that object starts very early on in the process as well.  This is just part of the reason Van Gogh’s painting have always amazed me. He has the ability to create a scene that isn’t quite right, but we know what it is showing anyway. He is able to let your mind fill in the rest of the details. Not only this, but each perception of his paintings are completely different based off our own experience. I know my personal experience leads to a beautiful painting with lots of emotion.

Self Portrait by Van Gogh shown at L’Atelier des Lumières



Works Cited

Bar, M., Tootell, R. B., Schacter, D. L., Greve, D. N., Fischl, B., Mendola, J. D., . . . Dale, A. M. (2001). Cortical Mechanisms Specific to Explicit Visual Object Recognition. Neuron,29(2), 529-535. doi:10.1016/s0896-6273(01)00224-0

Bar, M. (2003). A cortical mechanism for triggering top-down facilitation in visual object recognition. J Cognitive Neuroscience,15, 600-609.

Bar, M. (2007). The proactive brain: Using analogies and associations to generate predictions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences,11(9), 372. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2007.08.004

Barrett, L. F., & Bar, M. (2009). See it with feeling: affective predictions during object perception. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences364(1521), 1325–1334. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0312

Siegel, E. H., Wormwood, J. B., Quigley, K. S., & Barrett, L. F. (2018). Seeing What You Feel: Affect Drives Visual Perception of Structurally Neutral Faces. Psychological science29(4), 496–503. doi:10.1177/0956797617741718

Image 1,2 and 4-  my own images

Image 3: Wheatfield with Crows – Van Gogh Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0149V1962

There’s Nothing Like the Smell of Home

Photo of the metro

About two weeks ago, I arrived very jet-lagged in Paris and couldn’t wait to explore the city. I wanted to take it all in – the sights, the sounds, and the smells. We hit the ground running during our first evening in Paris and rode the metro to the Eiffel Tower. As we waited in the metro station, I realized that I recognized the exact smell of the station. The dusty, metallic smell of the metro brought back many fond and vivid memories during my childhood where I often rode the metro in Toronto. I began to wonder why the smell of the metro brought back such vivid, emotional memories that happened over 10 years ago.

Balls at the museum that emitted smells when you picked them up!

Fast forward to several days ago, I experienced something similar in the Musée du Parfum (perfume museum). It is an amazing museum that is filled with lots of perfume and strong scents that we were able to sniff! One of the scents that stood out to me smelled just like a campfire. Similar to my metro experience, the strong smell of the burning wood brought back many great memories of roasting marshmallows around a bonfire at camp every year.

Fragrant roses at the museum



In the courses that I’ve taken as an NBB major, I have learned about the separate pathways in the brain that are active during olfaction, memory retrieval, and certain emotional responses. Interestingly, I have not yet learned what happens when those pathways interact like when an emotional memory is retrieved from an odor. I wanted to delve deeper and learn more about what is happening when memories and emotions are retrieved from odors.

Olfactory Pathway Diagram


It is already known that olfaction, memory, and emotion are closely linked in the brain. An olfactory signal is transmitted from the primary olfactory cortex to the amygdala and the hippocampus before being sent to higher order olfactory cortices (Shipley and Reyes, 1991). The amygdala is generally associated with emotional responses, while memory processes are closely linked to the hippocampus (Fortin et al., 2004; Cardinal et al., 2002). So, the olfactory signal is relayed through two brain structures that are important for both emotion and memory. 

In 2014, Saive et al. published a study that sought to better understand the interaction between emotion, olfaction, and memory. They tested the hypothesis that emotions invoked by odors facilitate the memory of specific unique events. To do this, they created a model to study memory and mimic real-life situations as best as possible in humans. Participants explored three laboratory episodes, each consisting of three unfamiliar odors (what), positioned at three specific locations (where), within a specific visual environment (which context). Participants explored one episode per day for three days, which they called encoding days. On the 4th day, called retrieval day, they were tested with distractor odors and the odors that they had previously experienced. The distractor odors were used to make sure that participants were associating the correct smells with their memory. Participants were asked to push a button if they recognized the smell, and then had to choose the specific location that they experienced the odor and the correct visual context. They also rated the odors based on pleasantness to investigate the influence of emotion on memory performance.

This study had several important findings that helped researchers better understand what was going on when participants retrieved memories from specific odors. First, they found that the number of accurately remembered contexts and locations was significantly higher when the odors were more pleasant or more unpleasant than neutral. This suggests that the intensity of the emotion  and the distinctness of the smell (but not pleasantness vs. unpleasantness) enhanced memory retrieval. This is what they expected to see – we are more likely to associate a memory that has emotional context with an odor than a neutral smell that we might experience every day.

Measured response times showed that the more information the participants remembered about an episode (what, where, which context), the faster they answered. Interestingly, the time period between odor recognition and retrieving details about their experience was constant no matter how accurate their retrieval was. Since there was no response time difference observed, researchers suggested that after odor recognition participants immediately recalled the whole episode at once rather than in pieces. Put simply, participants didn’t go step-by-step in their memory to recall where there were or how they were feeling, they instead remembered the entire memory at once. This led the researchers to propose a model to explain the cognitive processes that are involved in this unique memory retrieval. This model states that recognizing an odor and retrieving details about the memory associated with the odor are combined into a simultaneous memory retrieval process that begins as soon as an odor is smelled.

One strength of this study is that it mimicked real-life scenarios in the laboratory as naturally as possible by allowing participants to freely explore contexts with unique odors and ranging emotional valences. This makes the model suggested by the researchers more relevant to life outside of the laboratory and helps us better understand how odor is closely tied to memory recognition. Now I understand why I was able to quickly retrieve memories from so long ago just from a smell. Maybe many years from now, the smell of fresh baked bread will bring back fond memories of the many boulangeries (bakeries) I visited during my time in Paris.




Cardinal, R. N., Parkinson, J. A., Hall, J., & Everitt, B. J. (2002). Emotion and motivation: the role of the amygdala, ventral striatum, and prefrontal cortex. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews26(3), 321-352.

Fortin, N. J., Wright, S. P., & Eichenbaum, H. (2004). Recollection-like memory retrieval in rats is dependent on the hippocampus. Nature431(7005), 188-191.

Saive, A. L., Royet, J. P., Ravel, N., Thévenet, M., Garcia, S., & Plailly, J. (2014). A unique memory process modulated by emotion underpins successful odor recognition and episodic retrieval in humans. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience8, 1-11.

Shipley, M., & Reyes, P. (1991). Anatomy of the human olfactory bulb and central olfactory pathways. In The human sense of smell (pp. 29-60). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.


http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/brain/gfx/smell-pathway.jpg – Olfactory pathway diagram

https://pixabay.com/en/train-subway-tunnel-speed-1836126/ – Metro photo, Creative Commons

Photos at the museum – taken by myself