As many soap operas have already illustrated, the cliché where a man goes to a pub to drink away his emotions after a fight with his partner is already all too common. When couple members argue, many let slip phrases they do not necessarily mean, and that hurt the other to great extent. Words continue to fly until finally someone gives way, leaving the home and slamming the door. Stereotypes have it that the man usually goes to the nearest pub, where he spends the rest of the night drinking in silence, or complaining to the bartender. Researchers believe they may have discovered the region of the brain that regulates this kind of behavior, PhysOrg
Negative facial expressions from romantic partners are oftentimes the cause of such arguments and fights. Many are annoyed or depressed when they see their significant other giving them “the look,” and things go down a slippery slope from there on. A new scientific paper, published in the latest issue of the respected scientific journal Biological Psychiatry, illustrate the proposition that a region of the human brain called the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) may be playing a very important role in determining our reactions when we see such expressions.
The researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to gage the emotions of study participants, who were looking at positive, negative, and neutral facial expressions made by their partners, while hooked to the scanner. All test subjects were healthy adults, all part of committed relationships. Each of them was also asked to keep an online daily diary, in which to illustrate days of fighting, the amount of negative emotions they experienced, as well as the amount of alcohol or other substances they consumed to get over this.
The study “suggest[s] that imaging can provide potentially useful information about who may be vulnerable to mood and behavioral problems after a stressful event. We hope that future research will build on this idea and explore ways that imaging can be used to inform people about their emotional vulnerabilities,” Christine Hooker, a research affiliate with the Harvard University Psychology Department, and also the leader of the investigation, explains.
She adds that LPFC activity levels were not related to either mood or behavior the next day, if the participants in the study had not engaged in an inter-personal conflict the previous day. Conversely, when such an instance did occur, LPFC activity levels were a clear indicator of how a person would react the following day. The researchers noticed that lower levels of activity were tightly linked to higher levels of negative mood, and substance use.
“When activated in the context of intense emotion, it appears that the LPFC helps us to manage the intensity of negative emotions that emerge in social relationships. When this brain region does not efficiently activate or when the intensity of the conflict is very high, people need to learn behavioral strategies to cope with the emotional response. For some people this strategy can be as simple as counting to 10 before doing something that they might regret later,” the Editor of Biological Psychiatry, Dr. John Krystal, says of the importance of the new work.