Emotions and their lasting impact on the brain

By Sebastian Baez, Ph.D. Candidate

(posted 27th March 2017)

As medical advances allow people to live longer, it’s becoming increasingly important that we take care of our mental health as well as our physical health in later life. As we get older, our bodies, brains and minds age too, carrying with them some changes that are welcome, but others that are more challenging. Emotional-related changes, for example, are an important component of psychological health and well-being in older adults.

Emotions and their control are central aspects of everyday life. Not only do they influence our daily moods, but the emotional impact of a given experience can motivate behaviours, alter memories, change our sense of morality, and even bias reasoning and decision making. Emotional changes throughout life are indeed necessary for developing new skills. But if not managed properly, they can – in some cases – be linked to negative experiences of psychological distress, anxiety, and even depressive episodes.

I am part of a team at the University of Geneva, working solely on the Silver Santé Study, which is exploring the impact emotions have on the brain, how mental training techniques influence emotional well-being, and what benefits this may bring to us all in later life.

In order to study emotional processes in the human brain, we use neuroimaging methods such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). In this method, the magnetic properties of blood can be used to localise changes in brain activity while participants are lying in an MRI scanner. By asking them to perform certain tasks or to rest, we can measure which brain activation patterns are generated in a given task or in the resting state.

Recent discoveries about the emotional areas of the brain have allowed us to study how emotions are represented there, as well as how they may be controlled, heightened or reduced. There is also a growing interest in understanding how emotions unfold over time and for how long we can measure their effects on the brain and on various cognitive functions such as attention, reasoning, or memory. Previous studies have shown that emotions can have a lasting effect after an emotional episode. Researchers consider that some affective states may be resistant to change once they have been triggered, and that the duration of this carry-over depends on individual coping abilities and personality factors. The critical point is that a stronger and longer impact of emotions on the brain and cognition has been associated with higher levels of anxiety, rumination, and risk for depression.

Moreover, some recent fMRI studies have discovered that short emotional episodes can produce effects on brain activity and brain connectivity that are long-lasting in that they continue during a resting period several minutes after the actual emotional event. Furthermore, recent research on people suffering from depression has shown that by measuring brain activity at rest it is now possible to distinguish between different subtypes of depression.

Our team strongly believes that mental training techniques are a great tool to successfully regulate negative emotional experiences. Mental training might help facing high emotional encounters and even impact on emotional experiences and cognitive changes triggered by emotions, thereby contributing to the well-being of elderly people.



Kuppens, P., Allen, N. B., & Sheeber, L. B. (2010). Emotional inertia and psychological maladjustment. Psychological Science, 21, 984–991.

Peter Koval, Peter Kuppens, Nicholas B. Allen & Lisa Sheeber (2012): Getting stuck in depression: The roles of rumination and emotional inertia, Cognition & Emotion, 26:8, 1412-1427

Eryilmaz, H., Ville, D. Van De, Schwartz, S., & Vuilleumier, P. (2011). Impact of transient emotions on functional connectivity during subsequent resting state : A wavelet correlation approach. NeuroImage, 54(3), 2481–2491.

Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2013). Functional Neural Plasticity and Associated Changes in Positive Affect After Compassion Training. Cerebral Cortex, 23(7), 1552–61.

Wager, T. D. and C.-W. Woo (2017). “Imaging biomarkers and biotypes for depression.” Nat Med 23(1): 16-17.

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