The neural bases of cognitive emotion regulation: The roles of strategy and intensity

Abstract

When confronted with unwanted negative emotions, individuals use a variety of cognitive strategies for regulating these emotions. The brain mechanisms underlying these emotion regulation strategies have not been fully characterized, and it is not yet clear whether these mechanisms vary as a function of emotion intensity. To address these issues, 30 community participants (17 females, 13 males, Mage = 24.3 years) completed a picture-viewing emotion regulation task with neutral viewing, reacting to negative stimuli, cognitive reappraisal, attentional deployment, and self-distancing conditions. Brain and behavioral data were simultaneously collected in a 3T GE MRI scanner. Findings indicated that prefrontal regions were engaged by all three regulation strategies, but reappraisal showed the least amount of increase in activity as a function of intensity. Overall, these results suggest that there are both brain and behavioral effects of intensity and that intensity is useful for probing strategy-specific effects and the relationships between the strategies. Furthermore, while these three strategies showed significant overlap, there also were specific strategy-intensity interactions, such as frontoparietal control regions being preferentially activated by reappraisal and self-distancing. Conversely, self-referential and attentional regions were preferentially recruited by self-distancing and distraction as intensity increased. Overall, these findings are consistent with the notion that there is a continuum of cognitive emotion regulation along which all three of these strategies lie.

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Acknowledgements

Funding for this research was provided by the National Institute of Mental Health. An R21 grant (MH094545) was awarded to James J. Gross.

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Moodie, C.A., Suri, G., Goerlitz, D.S. et al. The neural bases of cognitive emotion regulation: The roles of strategy and intensity. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci 20, 387–407 (2020). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-020-00775-8

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Keywords

  • Emotion regulation
  • fMRI
  • Strategy
  • Cognitive control
  • Intensity
  • Activation