Activity in the human brain predicting differential heart rate responses to emotional facial expressions

Hugo D. Critchley, Pia Rotshtein, Yoko Nagai, John O'Doherty, Christopher J. Mathias, Raymond J. Dolan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The James-Lange theory of emotion proposes that automatically generated bodily reactions not only color subjective emotional experience of stimuli, but also necessitate a mechanism by which these bodily reactions are differentially generated to reflect stimulus quality. To examine this putative mechanism, we simultaneously measured brain activity and heart rate to identify regions where neural activity predicted the magnitude of heart rate responses to emotional facial expressions. Using a forewarned reaction time task, we showed that orienting heart rate acceleration to emotional face stimuli was modulated as a function of the emotion depicted. The magnitude of evoked heart rate increase, both across the stimulus set and within each emotion category, was predicted by level of activity within a matrix of interconnected brain regions, including amygdala, insula, anterior cingulate, and brainstem. We suggest that these regions provide a substrate for translating visual perception of emotional facial expression into differential cardiac responses and thereby represent an interface for selective generation of visceral reactions that contribute to the embodied component of emotional reaction.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)751-762
Number of pages12
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2005
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by a Wellcome Clinician Scientist Fellowship to HDC and a Programme Grant to RJD. We acknowledge the assistance and helpful discussions of members of the Emotion Group at the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience.


  • Autonomic
  • Emotion
  • Facial expression
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging
  • Heart rate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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