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Study Yields Clues on How the Brain Responds When People Are Insulted

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Aug. 26, 2009 -- A person's body position may affect how the brain responds to insults, a study shows.

Texas A&M University researchers studied the brain activity of 23 male and 23 female university students. They wired them with a stretch cap full of electronic sensors and then subjected them to critical comments.

The researchers found that body position affected brain responses to the insults.

Students who heard insults while sitting up showed more electrical activity in the left lateral frontal area of the brain -- which has been correlated with experiencing anger -- than those who were similarly insulted while lying flat on their backs or who heard neutral comments while upright , write Eddie Harmon-Jones, PhD, and Carly K. Peterson, MS, in the journal Psychological Science. The researchers say it's possible that some undiscovered physiological process occurs as a result of lying down.

Participants were told they had been randomly assigned to write a short essay, and that another volunteer would evaluate it. Each student was fitted with stereo headphones while still sitting upright.

A researcher randomly decided whether the student would continue to sit upright or be told to recline. The students then heard others rate them with intelligence scores and comment on their essay and personality.

The students in the reclined position and half of those sitting upright heard negative ratings about their essays and personalities. Sitting students also heard neutral ratings.

As soon as feedback stopped, brain activity was recorded by EEG. Then students completed a report about their emotions.

Just as the researchers had predicted, they detected more sparks of anger in the brains of students who were sitting up. They also found that after hearing insulting remarks, reported feelings of anger increased and happiness decreased. However, there was no difference in emotions between the reclined and sitting upright positions.

The researchers suggest that a reclined body position may reduce "the urge to move toward something" in response to an insult.

SOURCES: News release, Association for Psychological Science. Harmon-Jones, E. Psychological Science.

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