Advances toward a more naturalistic neuroscience of human memory and emotion

Sadia Shakil Organizer
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong, Sha Tin 
Hong Kong
Adeel Razi Co Organizer
Monash University
Tuesday, Jun 25: 9:00 AM - 10:15 AM
Room: Grand Ballroom 103 
The field of naturalistic neuroscience, particularly in the realms of human memory and emotion, is experiencing a significant surge in interest and development as gauged by the increasing number of posters and presentations at the previous OHBM meetings. This is because the use of rich, engaging stimuli such as movies, narratives, and music in neuroscience research represents a significant shift from traditional methods, offering a more realistic insight into human cognitive processes. This approach is crucial for advancing our understanding of the complex interactions between memory, emotion, and environmental stimuli, which are more representative of real-world experiences. The symposium's focus on the latest theoretical and methodological advancements makes it a critical platform for discussing and facilitating these urgently required breakthroughs.

The desired learning outcomes are as follows:

1. Attendees will gain an in-depth understanding of how naturalistic stimuli, such as movies and music, are used in neuroscience to study memory and emotion. This includes comprehending the advantages and challenges of these approaches compared to traditional methods.
2. Attendees will learn about the latest research findings on how these stimuli influence human cognition, emotions, and behavior, providing a more comprehensive understanding of these processes in naturalistic settings.
3. The symposium will showcase novel analysis techniques essential for interpreting the complex data derived from naturalistic neuroscience studies. This knowledge is crucial for researchers looking to apply these methods in their work.
4. Participants will have the opportunity to network with leading experts and peers in the field, fostering collaborations and discussions that could lead to future research breakthroughs.


1. Understanding the impact of naturalistic stimuli on memory and emotion
2. Familiarization with advanced analytical techniques in naturalistic neuroscience
3. Exploration of individual variations in cognitive processing  

Target Audience

Researchers and labs studying emotion and memory under the influence of naturalistic stimuli are expected to benefit from the proposed symposium. The target audience will include academic researchers and educators from early career researchers to established faculty members. They will include neuroscientists, psychologists, clinical practitioners, data scientists, analysts, policy makers and healthcare professionals. 


1. One stimulus, many experiences: Using within- and across-subject variability to understand neural correlates of conscious interpretations.

I will present results from several recent studies aiming to understand how and why people may arrive at different interpretations of the same sensory information. In the first study using independent film shorts, we found that individual differences in neural event segmentation predicted ultimate memory for and appraisal of the film’s content. In a second study, we found within-subject changes in neural activity when people experienced a valenced narrative for a second time, in light of new contextual information. Finally, in a third, ongoing study, we are investigating how and where changes in neural representations of the same ambiguous social information predict behavioral reappraisal of that information.  


Emily Finn, Dartmouth College Hanover, NH 
United States

2. The interrelationship between the neurobiology of language and emotional processing in naturalistic situations

In everyday life, language processing does not typically occur independent of emotional processing and vice versa. While valenced words, emotional prosody, and facial emotional displays are often ambiguous in isolation (as in typical laboratory-style studies), these cues are used together to reduce ambiguity about others’ emotional states in the real world. To better understand the neurobiological bases of this interrelationship, we conducted a series of studies involving functional magnetic resonance imaging acquired while 86 participants watched full-length films (where emotional cues naturally co-occur). These include investigation of 1) subnetworks for processing expletives, frequent, context-contingent, emotionally laden words; 2) the role of the amygdala (a poster child for emotional processing) in distributed subnetworks for processing valenced words in varying semantic contexts; 3) brain regions and subnetworks associated with processing valenced word, emotional prosody, and emotional face cues independently and in combinations; and 4) subnetwork predictors of individual differences in emotional traits. These studies collectively suggest that language and emotional processing are neurobiologically linked, with the brain making use of multiple emotional cues as available. This does not occur in a fixed set of ‘language’ and ‘emotional’ brain regions but, rather, in distributed and interconnected subnetworks that vary with available context.  


Jeremy Skipper, Associate Professor, University College London London
United Kingdom

3. Neural signatures of endogenous event boundaries in self-guided behaviors

Studies on event segmentation and its neural mechanisms typically focus on exogenous event boundaries determined by changes in external stimuli. However, as active agents in the real world, humans also internally generate event boundaries by spontaneously switching between goals and mental states. In three fMRI studies, we employed naturalistic, self-guided tasks to characterize neural responses to endogenous event boundaries. In our first study, we found that during free narrated recall of a series of short movies, the default mode network (DMN) exhibited consistent activation patterns at boundaries between memories for different movies. These activation patterns were highly similar to those observed at exogenous boundaries between movies during movie-watching. In the second study, we used a 'think-aloud' task to illustrate that the DMN boundary pattern also emerged at transitions between different topics in a stream of spontaneous thoughts. Our third study extended these findings beyond verbal responses and observed the DMN boundary pattern during spontaneous switching between different task goals in a continuous web browsing task. Together, our results demonstrate that endogenous event boundaries elicit generalized neural responses in higher associative cortices, similar to those seen at exogenous boundaries.  


Hongmi Lee, Assistant Professor, Purdue University West Lafayette, IN 
United States

4. What information is carried in event-level representations during naturalistic recall?

Naturalistic recall of past episodes is idiosyncratic across people, even when individuals encoded the same events. These idiosyncrasies impose a challenge to studying the neural mechanisms supporting real-life memories. Event-level analyses are suggested to partly overcome this issue and capture the shared response across individuals. However, it is not clear what type and granularity of information are preserved in event-level representations. Across three fMRI studies, we investigated the information captured using event-level analyses. In one experiment, participants watched the same movie and one of them recounted the movie to a group of individuals naïve to the story. Using spatial pattern similarity analysis, we show that shared neural patterns across individuals in the default mode network are event-specific, are shared irrespective of the modality, and can be built from limited information. In the second study, we manipulated the interpretation of a movie after encoding that triggered the updating of past memories to incorporate new knowledge. In some regions of the default mode network, we find evidence for memory updating, but only in the scenes relevant to the new interpretation. In the last ongoing study, we asked people to recall their autobiographical memories in an emotional regulation task. We found that event-level neural representations capture the emotional state in this task. Taken together, our work suggests that event-level representations carry information about fine-grained content and emotional state during the naturalistic retrieval of past episodes.  


Asieh Zadbood, Postdoctoral Fellow, Columbia University New York, NY 
United States