Introduction to a special issue on the neuroscience of motivation and emotion

Eddie Harmon-Jones • Jack van Honk

Published online: 28 February 2012

� Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Neuroscience methods have gained widespread use in

many areas of psychological and behavioral sciences. Their

use has likewise increased in research and theory on

motivation and emotion. As a consequence of this explo-

sion of interest, we organized this special issue. In orga-

nizing this issue, we thought it important to have

contributions from a range of neuroscience methods,

because addressing issues concerning motivation and

emotion requires multiple methods, each with their own

benefits and limitations, particularly when used in studying

emotive processes in humans. In addition, we invited sci-

entists to contribute who are making programmatic neu-

roscientific contributions to the study of motivation and

emotion, and were pleased that all invited agreed to


The study of physiological and biological processes in

motivation and emotion dates back several decades in non-

human animal research and human research. Indeed, sci-

entists studying motivation and emotion were some of the

first to employ physiological measurements in their work.

Consider Walter Cannon’s (1915) classic experiments on

the fight or flight response, and Albert Ax’s (1953) classic

experiment elucidating physiological differences between

anger and fear. However, different names of the

field(s) employing these methods and models have been

used over time. The field has been referred to as biological

psychology, psychobiology, physiological psychology,

neuropsychology, psychophysiology, as well as other

names. Although some of these terms are still used to

describe specific types of conceptual and/or methodologi-

cal approaches, in our view, these fields are all associated

with neuroscience, the term most commonly used today in

describing research into physiological and biological pro-

cesses involving brain/mind.

The explosion of interest in neuroscience within the

study of motivation, emotion, and other psychological

processes is likely due to several factors. One prominent

factor contributed to the explosion of interest is the advent

of new and more readily available methods. For example,

the signal of most interest in functional magnetic resonance

imaging, the blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD)

signal, was first successfully measured in the human brain

in the early 1990s (Kwong et al. 1992), and it has since

gained widespread research usage. Also, within the last

decade, several companies produced easy-to-use acquisi-

tion and signal processing systems for use with physio-

logical responses such as electroencephalography (EEG),

event-related brain potentials (ERPs), and electromyogra-

phy. At the same time, the growing interest in the neuro-

science of human motivation and emotion coincided with

the advent of salivary measurement and methods for acute

single administrations of the hormones oxytocin and tes-

tosterone, and in research these hormones subsequently

proved to be critical motivators for numerous human social

and affective behaviors (Bos et al. in press).

Emotive neuroscience integrates diverse literatures,

theories, and methodologies to address questions about

brain, mind, and behavior and thus creates a science

E. Harmon-Jones (&) University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW, Australia

e-mail: eddiehj@gmail.com

J. van Honk

Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

J. van Honk

Cape Town University, Cape Town, South Africa


Motiv Emot (2012) 36:1–3

DOI 10.1007/s11031-012-9281-x



presumably closer to yielding answers to important ques-

tions. This interdisciplinary research approach can poten-

tially provide a bridge to other knowledge that may

ultimately help to explain or better understand a condition

or behavior. For example, activity in a brain region may be

associated with other behaviors, neurotransmitters, or

hormones that may in turn might shed light on the original

behavior or condition of interest (Carver and Harmon-

Jones 2009). Also, neuroscience methods can be used in

tests of theoretical interpretations of behavioral effects, as

several papers in this special issue illustrate.

In addition, neuroscience methods provide sources of

information that subvert some of the problems with self-

report and other behavioral measures. For example, mea-

sures of brain activity, such as EEG, ERP, and fMRI, allow

researchers to record rapid, online changes in motivational

and affective responses that would otherwise be impossible

to assess without interrupting a participant’s engagement in

an experimental manipulation or impossible to assess

because these processes are not available in consciousness.

As noted above, the contributors, who are making

important programmatic neuroscientific contributions to

the study of motivation and emotion, employ a range of

neuroscience methods and address a range of questions

related to motivation and emotion. We briefly review their

contributions below.

Jaak Panksepp, a pioneer in the field who coined the

term affective neuroscience, leads off with an essay

pointing to the necessity of studying primary emotional

feelings in non-humans. He differentiates these processes

from secondary-processes concerning learning and mem-

ory and tertiary processes concerning cognitive thinking

and rumination. In the end, he posits that this conceptual

view integrates basic and dimensional approaches to


Alexander Todorov reviews findings from primate and

human neuroscience on face processing and the amygdala.

He considers faces as imperative stimuli, and suggests that

cognition, affect and motivation intersect in face percep-

tion. One of the key functions of the amygdala would be to

direct attention to faces that are atypical or ambiguous.

Todorov’s in-depth framework is also consistent with

amygdala findings that do not involve faces, and is there-

fore a universal account for the role of the amygdala in


Tom Price and Eddie Harmon-Jones review research

suggesting that manipulated facial expressions, hand con-

tractions, and changes in physical posture influence

approach motivation or the inclination to move toward a

stimulus as assessed by physiological measures (i.e.,

asymmetric EEG alpha power over the frontal cortex, the

late positive potential of the ERP, and the startle eyeblink

response). They conclude that bi-directionality may exist

between certain bodily movements and other components

of approach- or avoidance-related emotions.

Jennifer Beer reviews recent research on motivated

social cognition. Her review reveals what can be learned by

examining motivational influences on the neural systems

underlying social cognition. In particular, her review sug-

gests that unrealistically positive evaluations of oneself and

one’s close other causes reduced orbitofrontal cortex acti-

vation compared to evaluations of others. Thus, these

results contribute to the debate over whether unrealistic

positivity reflects active distortion or cognitive conserva-

tion and they are more consistent with the cognitive miser


Dennis Schutter and Gennady Knyazev expertly review

electrophysiological studies on the relations between

motivation, emotion and cross-frequency coupling of brain

oscillations. They suggest, on basis of this evidence, that

the study of interdependencies of brain oscillations may be

a valuable approach for studying processes associated with

motivation and emotion. For instance, amplitude–ampli-

tude coupling between delta-alpha and delta-beta is asso-

ciated with state anxiety and approach-avoidance-related

motivation. Also, the coupling of delta-beta oscillations

changes following successful psychotherapy.

John Jost and David Amodio provide a timely review

integrating previous behavioural research on motives

underlying political orientation with emotive neuroscience

research concerned with reactions to uncertainty, ambigu-

ity, threat, and disgust. Their review suggests that right-

(vs. left-) wing political orientation is associated with

greater neural sensitivity to threat and a larger amygdala

region, as well as less sensitivity to response conflict and a

smaller anterior cingulate region.

Estrella Montoya, David Terburg, Peter Bos, and Jack

van Honk put forward a framework for the interactive role

of steroid hormones cortisol and testosterone and the

monoamine serotonin in impulsive aggression. First

focusing on steroid hormones, they review evidence that

suggests that high testosterone-to-cortisol ratio sets a pre-

disposition for social aggressive behaviour in general.

Next, they review evidence that suggests that serotonin

may differentiate between impulsive and instrumental

aggression, in that low prefrontal serotonin synthesis in

combination with a high testosterone-low cortisol ratio

produces a socially explosive mind.

Alicia Salvador in her insightful review discusses the

interactive role of the hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal

(HPG) axis and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA)

axis in a broad spectrum of social behaviors. The interac-

tions between these axes and their end products, the hor-

mones testosterone and cortisol, are highly adaptive in

social situations that involve competition and challenge

and have components of social stress.

2 Motiv Emot (2012) 36:1–3




Anna Weinberg, Anja Riesel, and Greg Hajcak review

over two decades of research and theories about the error-

related negativity (ERN), a negative-going wave in the

event-related brain potential that occurs following the

commission of an error. After presenting and critically

evaluating cognitive theories of the ERN, they review

research that suggests that the ERN is neural index of a

neurobehavioral trait and variation in its amplitude is

partially related to individual differences in defensive


Collectively, these papers illustrate the multifarious

ways in which the inclusion of neuroscience can benefit the

study of motivation and emotion. They demonstrate how

neuroscience approaches can lead to better understandings

of phenomena; generate new predictions and new theories,

even at the behavioural level; inform established psycho-

logical theories; and be used in tests of competing theories.


Ax, A. F. (1953). The physiological differentiation between fear and

anger in humans. Psychosomatic Medicine, 15, 433–442. Bos, P. A., Panksepp, J., Bluthé, R.-M., & van Honk, J. (in press).

Acute effects of steroid hormones and neuropeptides on human

social—emotional behavior: A review of single administration

studies. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. Cannon, W. B. (1915). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear and rage:

An account of recent researches into the function of emotional excitement. New York, NY: D. Appleton & Company.

Carver, C. S., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2009). Anger is an approach-

related affect: Evidence and implications. Psychological Bulle- tin, 135, 183–204.

Kwong, K. K., Belliveau, J. W., Chesler, D. A., Goldberg, I. E.,

Weisskoff, R. M., Poncelet, B. P., et al. (1992). Dynamic

magnetic resonance imaging of human brain activity during

primary sensory stimulation. Proceedings of National Academy of Science USA, 89, 5675–5679.

Motiv Emot (2012) 36:1–3 3




Copyright of Motivation & Emotion is the property of Springer Science & Business Media B.V. and its content

may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express

written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.

"Is this question part of your assignment? We can help"