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An Analysis of the Cognitive Ability of Self-Regulation

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An Analysis of the Cognitive Ability of Self-Regulation

Fred D.Winter & Charity N. Dugas

Southwestern University


Utilizing the cognitive process of self-regulation, humans can handle negative emotions through the mental process of reappraisal. New research conducted by Oschner (2001) using an fMRI scan, indicate that there is significant brain activity in the prefrontal cortex during reappraisal. Utilizing these findings as an indicator of reappraisal, this study will examine if emotional reappraisal can be learned. Experimenters will elicit an emotional response from the participants by showing them two horrific scenes, and then measuring the type of emotional regulation observed, through the fMRI and a survey. It is hypothesized that those participants who have experienced a singular traumatizing event in recent memory will reappraise more than those who have not. This study is important for research because it examines the possibility of a learned emotional response.

Humans stand apart from animals in that they can actively regulate their cognitive processes in a manner that can inhibit certain emotions. For instance, humans have the important ability to selectively inhibit their aggressive, sexual, and socially un-acceptable behavior. Bjorklund and Harnishleger (1995) explain in a review that human inhibition has played a central role in the evolution of the changing human mind for it has allowed for greater social cohesion and harmony. Instead of succumbing to primal impulses, humans can hold themselves back and in turn, self-regulate.

Self-regulation of the mind can take several forms, yet an important facet of self-regulation is that humans have the ability to change the way we feel about specific situations. Being emotional beings, having the ability to hold sway over where our emotions lead us is important for both our mental and physical health. For instance, to use a physical health example, people who have serious illnesses can improve their health and live longer by adopting a hopeful outlook on their situation and treatment, versus those who adopt a negative outlook might deteriorate faster. To use a mental health example, humans can fight back the feelings of nausea and sickness after seeing a disturbing image, just like a doctor is able to look at someone profusely bleeding on an operating table and reassess that the person is a patient in need of help.

This type of emotion regulation is commonly known as reappraisal, a reinterpretation of a potentially emotional situation in a way that neutralizes its emotional impact (Richards, 2001). Several studies have looked into the dynamics of this cognitive self-regulation.

Reappraisal is an interesting process because it stems from an individual's ability to control a conscious response. Barrett and Salovey (2001) found that individual differences in psychological resilience predict different outcomes in emotional regulation. In other words, those that could successfully bounce back from negative emotional experiences and were flexibly adaptive to changing situational demands exhibited a higher ability to positively reappraise a potentially self-esteem destructive situation (Barrett and Salovey, 2001). Specifically, their study refers to an individual ability to deal with and cope with negativity in general.

In a study titled the "Cognitive Consequences of Concealing Feelings", Richards (2001) noted that when individuals did not re-appraise, but instead suppressed their emotional response, there were consequences on cognitive ability. Suppression directly refers to the conscious inhibition of emotion-expressive behavior (2001). In his words "although these self-monitoring and self-corrective processes [suppression] may permit us to conceal feelings successfully, they could end up diverting finite attention resources from other things we could be doing at the same time" (Richards, 2001). In short, suppressing a natural emotional response was demonstrated to interfere with memory, communicative discourse, and problem solving. For instance, participants instructed to refrain from an emotional response to a startling image while also being told detailed info about each image as it was displayed, exhibited a significantly lower retention of the information told. On the other hand, in the same study it was found that when the individual simply reinterpreted the event in a way to neutralize its impact, there were no cognitive consequences. In a related study on emotion regulation, it was found that individuals placed in a suppression condition actually displayed significantly higher blood pressure than those in a reappraisal condition (Barrett, 2001). Thus, it appears that re-appraisal is the healthiest and most efficient way to regulate emotional expression.

However, although studies have shown that people do reappraise in negative situations, it has been a mystery as of late as to how this could be tested physiologically. In response to this dilemma, Oschner (2001) and colleagues used a fMRI to explore the mental regions of the brain that activate during the reappraisal of an event. In their study, they discovered that brain activity was present in the pre-frontal cortex during the cognitive process of reappraisal (Ochsner, Buner, et. al, 2001). Specifically, it was found that significantly activated regions were the dorsal and ventral regions of the LPFC (left pre-frontal cortex) and the dorsal MPFC (medial pre-frontal cortex). This research is consistent with Bjorklund and Harnishfeger's (1995) research on inhibition, where they noted that damage to the prefrontal lobes resulted in loss of appropriate social and emotional inhibitions. Also, they noted that signals from the limbic system (emotional center in the brain) are sent to the prefrontal cortex where they can be sorted out from other parts of the brain, an ability that can be associated with emotional regulation. Since cognitive inhibition of an emotional response is directly associated with reappraisal, this is an indication that we know what part of the brain activates when humans are exhibiting self-regulatory control over their emotional response.

While previous studies have examined the differences between suppression and reappraisal, emotional regulation as a learned response, outside of conscious control



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