What happens in the brain during arguments? An interactive atlas shows which regions get activated by rage, anger, and exasperation
On October 6, an exhibition about arguments is opening at the Museum of Communication. The Brain Simulation Group at the Berlin Institute of Health at Charité (BIH) will be participating with an interactive touchscreen display that visualizes emotions involved in arguments. Visitors will be able to light up specific networks in the brain where rage, anger, envy, and resignation arise.
From the outside, the brain looks like a half-walnut. Deep grooves permeate both its halves, and the surface is slightly shiny. But there are darker areas on the inside, where blood vessels interweave the nerve tissue. The brain’s incredible diversity of functions and abilities – ranging from regulating motion to the vegetative functions of heartbeat, breathing, and digestion all the way to memory and powerful emotions – is not immediately obvious.
Visualizing information from databases
Petra Ritter and her team at the BIH’s Brain Simulation Group are literally shedding light on things. Using computer-generated databases based on more than 35 million scientific articles, they have aggregated information about the brain which they then visualize in the simulated brain on the computer. “For the ‘Arguments’ exhibition, we searched scientific literature databases for research studies dealing with the brain and related topics like rage, fear, anger, and exasperation,” Ritter said. “Since there are too many studies for any one person to read, we used a program developed by the Frauenhofer-Gesellschaft. We tweaked the program to let us calculate how intensely specific feelings are associated with specific regions of the brain. The more often a certain region is named in combination with a certain feeling in research studies, the more likely it really is related to it. We have used colors to visualize the intensity of the connection between brain regions and emotions.”
Ritter’s team fed their results into their model, the simulated brain, and then programmed an app for the show. When exhibition visitors click on the term “rage,” the network of regions most strongly associated with that emotion lights up. The brain can then be rotated and turned so as to be seen from all sides. Another click on the illuminated region reveals that this is the limbic cortex, which is the seat of other emotions as well. It also lights up for “exasperation,” but so does the entire prefrontal cortex – a sign that this feeling is associated in scientific studies with many parts of the brain. In this way, exhibition-goers can see which networks are mainly involved in fear, exasperation, rage, and envy, and at the same time learn something about the brain stem, the cerebellum, and the hippocampus.
Understanding brain functions and diseases
The diverse body of information for the simulated brain comes from PET, EEG, and MRI brain scans, behavioral studies and lifestyle surveys, as well as clinical data from thousands of patients and healthy control subjects. The “digital twin” of the brain does much more than just visualize the emotions felt during arguments, or rather the brain regions that scientific studies say are associated with them. Instead of simply visualizing information – like in the exhibition app – scientists can use the virtual brain to configure personalized brain simulations. As Ritter explains the project, “Our virtual brain allows a variety of scientists to engage in innovative research using a powerful, digital platform, thus increasing our understanding of the mechanisms of brain function and diseases.” The ultimate goal is to use the virtual brain to improve the diagnosis and prognosis of diseases and to optimize therapies. The BIH scientists are collaborating with many international partners. For example, they are participating in the EU flagship Human Brain Project, and they are leading the European Open Science Cloud project Virtual Brain Cloud and the EU research infrastructure project EBRAIN-Health.
“We are excited to be able to contribute to the ‘Arguments’ exhibition at the Berlin Museum of Communication. It is an opportunity to share our research with a broader audience in a fun way. Hopefully, we can get people at least a little excited about the miracle that is the human brain.”