Why some feel better the next day after a quarrel and others don’t

Laboratory tests in previous studies have shown that the area of the brain called lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) is associated with emotion regulation. However, this connection has never been demonstrated in day-to-day life experiences.

A new study by a team of researchers from Harvard University and University of California Berkeley suggests that brain activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex is a predictor of how someone will feel in the days following a fight with a partner. The researchers studied the LPFC activity of healthy adult participants in committed relationships (longer than three months). While under brain scan (functional MRI), the participants viewed pictures of their partners in positive, negative and neutral facial expressions. Their brain activity was recorded while reacting to the images. In a three-week online diary, the participants also reported conflicts with a partner, their emotional state including level of negative mood, substance abuse and constant, repetitive thoughts.  

The study authors found that, expectedly, everybody felt badly on the day of the fight with their partners. But those who recorded high lateral prefrontal cortex activity felt better the day after the conflict, while those who had low lateral prefrontal activity continued to feel badly. The ones who displayed greater LPFC activity while viewing their partners' negative facial expressions were less likely to report a negative mood the day after the fight. This indicates that they were better able to emotionally "bounce back" after the conflict, demonstrating their ability to regulate/control their emotional reactions.

The participants were also tested for broader cognitive control skills, such as their ability to control impulses and the shift and focus of attention. Those who had more activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex showed more cognitive control (ability to adaptively vary behavior from moment to moment) in laboratory tests, signifying a relationship between emotion regulation and broader cognitive control skills.

The study concluded that low lateral prefrontal function may make one vulnerable to mood and behavioral problems after an interpersonal stressor. This raises the question as to whether increasing lateral prefrontal cortex function will improve emotion regulation capacity.

Lead author Christine Hooker, assistant professor of psychology in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said that “findings suggest that imaging can provide potentially useful information about who may be vulnerable to mood and behavioral problems after a stressful event. We hope that future research will build on this idea and explore ways that imaging can be used to inform people about their emotional vulnerabilities.”

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