Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

The brain basis of emotion: A meta-analytic review

Kristen A. Lindquista1, Tor D. Wagera2, Hedy Kobera3, Eliza Bliss-Moreaua4 and Lisa Feldman Barretta5

a1 Department of Neurology, Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital/Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Charlestown, MA 02129, and Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.

a2 Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309.

a3 Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06519.

a4 California National Primate Research Center, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of California, Davis, CA 95616.

a5 Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115, and Departments of Radiology and Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital/Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Charlestown, MA 02129.


Researchers have wondered how the brain creates emotions since the early days of psychological science. With a surge of studies in affective neuroscience in recent decades, scientists are poised to answer this question. In this target article, we present a meta-analytic summary of the neuroimaging literature on human emotion. We compare the locationist approach (i.e., the hypothesis that discrete emotion categories consistently and specifically correspond to distinct brain regions) with the psychological constructionist approach (i.e., the hypothesis that discrete emotion categories are constructed of more general brain networks not specific to those categories) to better understand the brain basis of emotion. We review both locationist and psychological constructionist hypotheses of brain–emotion correspondence and report meta-analytic findings bearing on these hypotheses. Overall, we found little evidence that discrete emotion categories can be consistently and specifically localized to distinct brain regions. Instead, we found evidence that is consistent with a psychological constructionist approach to the mind: A set of interacting brain regions commonly involved in basic psychological operations of both an emotional and non-emotional nature are active during emotion experience and perception across a range of discrete emotion categories.

Kristen A. Lindquist is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard University Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative and is affiliated with the Departments of Neurology (Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital) and Psychology (Harvard University). She received her A.B. in 2004 and her Ph.D. in 2010 from Boston College. Her interdisciplinary research uses social cognitive, psychophysiological, neuropsychological, and neuroimaging methods to understand how emotions emerge from the combination of more basic psychological operations.

Tor D. Wager is the director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He received his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, with a focus in cognitive neuroscience, from the University of Michigan in 2003. He joined the faculty of Columbia University as an Assistant Professor of Psychology in 2004, and was appointed Associate Professor in 2009. In 2010, he joined the faculty of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His research focuses on how expectations shape responses to pain and emotional cues in the brain and body. Peer-reviewed publications include work on brain mechanisms of placebo analgesia and the cognitive regulation of emotion and attention.

Hedy Kober is an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Psychology, and Cognitive Science at Yale University and Director of the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory and Director of Research at Yale's Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic. She received her B.A., M.A., and M.Phil. in Psychology from Columbia University. She completed her Ph.D. in Psychology with a focus on Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience at Columbia University in 2009. Her research focuses on neural mechanisms of psychological change, regulation of craving, and regulation of emotion more generally.

Eliza Bliss-Moreau is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of California, Davis and the California National Primate Research Center. She received her S.B. in biology and psychology in 2002 and her Ph.D. in psychology in 2008 from Boston College. Her research focuses on the neurobiological and physiological underpinnings of individual differences in affect and emotion. She adopts a translational approach by modeling affective processing in both humans and nonhuman primates.

Lisa Feldman Barrett is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory (IASLab) at Northeastern University, with research appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Barrett received her B.Sc. from the University of Toronto in 1986, and her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Waterloo in 1992. Her research focuses on the nature of emotion from both psychological and neuroscience perspectives, and takes inspiration from anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics. In 2007, she received a National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Award for her research.