Do Words Stink? Neural Reuse as a Principle for Understanding Emotions in Reading


  • Ziegler Johannes
  • Montant Marie
  • Briesemeister Benny B
  • Brink Tila T
  • Ponz Aurelie
  • Bonnard Mireille
  • Jacobs Arthur M
  • Braun Mario M
  • Wicker Bruno


  • Neural activation
  • Reading
  • Emotions recognition

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How do we understand the emotional content of written words? Here, we investigate the hypothesis that written words that carry emotions are processed through phylogenetically ancient neural circuits that are involved in the processing of the very same emotions in nonlanguage contexts. This hypothesis was tested with respect to disgust. In an fMRI experiment, it was found that the same region of the left anterior insula responded whether people observed facial expressions of disgust or whether they read words with disgusting content. In a follow-up experiment, it was found that repetitive TMS over the left insula in comparison with a control site interfered with the processing of disgust words to a greater extent than with the processing of neutral words. Together, the results support the hypothesis that the affective processes we experience when reading rely on the reuse of phylogenetically ancient brain structures that process basic emotions in other domains and species.

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