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The Neuroscience of Savoring Positive Emotions

Sustained ventral striatum activation is linked to savoring positive emotions.

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

I was in a cranky mood this afternoon when I read about a new study on the neuroscience of savoring positive emotions released this week from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM). Lately, I’ve been feeling jaded. My life and career have presented more demands and stress recently and I’ve felt the cynicism creeping in.

Luckily, reading about this new study—which found that prolonged activation of a brain region called the ventral striatum is directly linked to sustaining positive emotions and reward—helped me turn my foul mood around this afternoon.

Wikimedia/Lifescience Database
Striatum in red.
Source: Wikimedia/Lifescience Database

Hopefully, realizing that the activation of your ventral striatum is in the locus of your control will inspire you to use this research to help savor more positive emotions, too.

In general, people with more sustained levels of activity in the ventral striatum report higher levels of psychological well-being and have lower levels of the "stress hormone" cortisol.

In previous research, the team at CIHM identified that savoring things like a beautiful sunset and the positive emotions associated with it can contribute to improved well-being. For this new study, the researchers wanted to identify how and why some people are better at keeping positive feelings alive.

The July 2015 study, “The Neurodynamics of Affect in the Laboratory Predicts Persistence of Real-World Emotional Responses,” was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

What I particularly like about identifying a specific brain region linked to sustaining positive emotions is that it makes it easier to visualize an "on/off" switch and puts the activation of this region within your conscious control.

To test this study in the real-world, I decided while lacing up for a run after work that I was going to activate my ventral striatum by visualizing it like an on/off switch associated with a sustained feeling of well-being and positive emotions. I also decided that I would take snapshots of the experiment to remind me of this state of mind later on, if things went well. These are the photos you see in this blog post...

When I set out for my run after work tonight, I vowed that come hell or high water, I was going to experience and savor sustained positive emotions. Lo and behold, it turned out to be one of the most awe-inspiring experiences I’ve had in weeks ... A few minutes after I started jogging, the skies clouded over and it started to drizzle. Instead of cursing the rain, I decided to focus on how much I love the smell of raindrops hitting hot summer pavement after a long dry spell. The rain also felt really good against my skin.

It hadn't stopped raining, but as I came around a bend at the top of a hill in the dunes where I was running, the sun burst out from behind the clouds and created a panoramic rainbow that filled the sky. I could see the rainbow from beginning to end. As cliché as it is, the sight filled me with a sense of wonder and positive emotions that I still feel hours later as I sit at my desk writing this blog post.

Activation of the Ventral Striatum Helps Savor Positive Emotions

The ability to sustain positive emotion is a key component of psychological well-being. Failure to sustain positive emotions over time is a hallmark of depression and other psychopathologies, but the mechanisms supporting the ability to sustain positive emotional responses have been poorly understood until now.

For this new study, the researchers at CIHM investigated the neuroscience associated with sustaining positive emotions in the real world by conducting two experiments on humans. The first was an fMRI task of reward responses, the second was an experience-sampling task measuring emotional responses to a reward obtained in the field.

Sustained ventral striatum engagement in the laboratory positively predicted the duration of real-world positive emotional responses. Examining these dynamics may facilitate a better understanding of the brain-behavior associations underlying both positive and negative emotions.

Lead author of the study, Aaron S. Heller, PhD is a former graduate student at CIHM. He is currently assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami. In a press release Heller said,

It's important to consider not just how much emotion you experience, but also how long these emotions persist. We're looking at how one person can savor a great deal from that beautiful sunset or a memorable meal, but how another person who might be susceptible to depression can't savor that sunset and those positive emotions subside quickly.

The exact mechanism that allows real-world emotions—experienced over seconds, minutes, and hours—to be instantiated in the brain remains mysterious. However, these findings suggest that the duration of activity in specific circuits of the brain—even over relatively short periods of time such as seconds—can predict the persistence of a person's positive emotions minutes and hours later.

Conclusion: Mindfulness, Meditation, and Ventral Striatal Activation

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

The results of this study, and its unique design, contribute to a better understanding of how mental disorders such as depression manifest in the brain. The findings could also help explain why some people are more cynical than others and why some of us tend to see the glass as perpetually half-full, rather than half-empty.

Richard J. Davidson, senior author of the study and founder of CIHM, says the neural pattern observed in the new study, particularly in the ventral striatum, has predicted higher levels of well-being in previous studies. He adds that, "practices such as loving-kindness and compassion toward others, which aim to cultivate certain forms of positive emotion, might help to increase savoring."

This study implies that simple forms of meditation can improve sustained positive emotions in both real-world contexts as well as sustained ventral striatal activation measured in the laboratory using brain imaging technology.

After road testing the findings of this study myself, I’m determined to keep my ventral striatum activated and locked in the "on" position. Deciding that you are going to make conscious choices through mindfulness to savor positive emotions can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hopefully, this research will galvanize you to activate your ventral striatum regularly and consciously savor positive emotions every hour of everyday.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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