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The psychological construction of mental states: How the mind is realized by distributed networks in the brain

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Brain mechanisms behind mental states

An EU-funded study looked at the neural networks active during common mental states to understand how the brain processes subjective experiences.

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Constructionist theory of mental states suggests that the interaction of various neural networks make up our experiences, whether they are thoughts, emotions or sensations. The MAPPING THE MIND project used this theory as a basis for the hypothesis that different mental states each involve a different combination of the same set of distributed brain networks. During its first study, participants were asked to generate emotions, bodily feelings and thoughts in response to descriptions of negative situations. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers measured activity within large-scale brain networks. The results showed that the parts of the brain related to bodily sensations were the most active while expressing emotions and bodily feelings. However, they were also active during thinking. This supports the initial theory that many mental states utilise the same brain networks. Researchers also showed participants negative and arousing images that may be interpreted by some as disgusting and by others as fascinating. Examples included conflict in war and an operation on a finger. Preliminary analysis showed that this variability may be because of the way these images are conceptualised. The part of the brain responsible for conceptualisation appears to play a greater role in atypical emotional states such as fascination compared to more typical states like fear and disgust. Another investigation explored the networks involved in how people understand the mental states of other people. Participants were asked to respond to sentences describing emotional and non-emotional states. The findings showed that mental state understanding is constructed in the same networks that also produce subjective mental understanding. The site of any neural overlap in the brain was also investigated when people experience emotion and sensations as well as understanding emotions in others. Using fMRI, the researchers found evidence of interaction of large-scale distributed networks. MAPPING THE MIND results challenge the assumption that different mental functions have specific correlates in the brain. Instead, it appears that mental states are produced within the brain by some common neural networks. This despite the fact that the psychological domains in question appear outwardly very different. The research has contributed to scientists' understanding of how the brain creates the mind.

Keywords

Brain, mental states, neural networks, constructionist theory, distributed networks

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