The Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2,201st Meeting

President William Saalbach called the 2,201st meeting to order at 8:16 pm February 10, 2006. The minutes of the 2,100th meeting were read and, more or less, approved. Some changes were made.

Mr. Saalbach then introduced the speaker of the evening, Ms. Claudia Wassman of the National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and the Office of NIH History. Ms. Wassman spoke on “Imaging the Brain – Finding Emotion.” Ms. Wassman's objectives were to put imaging studies in historical perspective and highlight the impact of brain imaging on understanding of cognition and emotion.


Back in the 1950's, war neuroses were a major concern of people interested in brain function. In those days, emotions were viewed negatively. People were spoken of as “handicapped by mental and emotional disorders” that led to “anti-social behavior.”

In 1954, mental illness was reported by NIH to “[cost] the nation well over a billion dollars a year.” Mental and emotional disorders accounted for half the hospital beds in use. Emotional problems were said to be “responsible for much self-destructive or anti-social behavior, such as alcoholism, suicide, homicide, delinquency, and drug addiction.”

There were attempts to study the problem using animals. Ms. Wassman described one study based on a theory that the presence of a “good” sheep mother during prolonged stress would prevent the sheep from becoming neurotic.

The “talking cure,” psychotherapy, remained popular in the 1960's. In the 1980's interest in the physiology of mental problems grew with the support of doctors at NIH. They conducted the first brain imaging studies in the 1980's with schizophrenia patients.

As early as 1889, there had been attempts to measure cerebral blood flow. Ms. Wassman showed a picture of a subject lying on a table which was actually a tare scale. The pointer was supposed to swing and indicate when blood flowed to the subject's head. She did not say how successful that was.

Ms. Wassman traced the course of the development of methods of studying brains without removing them. Signal achievements were:

The importance of these imaging techniques is great. Before these techniques, studies of lesions in the brain were the only way to connect emotion with brain function. Brain observation has made a great leap forward with these scanning techniques and the data analyses that make them clearly visible.

The development of fMRI, which produces brain scans rapidly and precisely and without radiation, is especially important. It is now the method of choice for most purposes, although PET scans are still used for certain purposes such as studying binding of molecules. FMRI development earned Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2003. Ms. Wassman appeared to be very proud of the MRI center at NIMH. The technique has reached the point that Ms. Wassman was able to show us movies of human brains functioning. They have discovered such things as that damage to the amygdala impairs recognition of emotional facial expressions, which illustrates how specific new findings are. Old-fashioned lesion studies were involved in that development and now activity in specific areas of the amygdala have been found to correspond with recognition of certain emotions.

In a very recent study, Stephan Hamann discovered that individuals with short alleles are hyper-sensitive to negative stimuli and may, he speculates, be at increased risk of developing depression.

Ms. Wassman concluded that brain imaging studies have:

In the question period, someone asked why they don't study higher-order emotions. Ms. Wassman replied that anger and fear are the strongest emotions, by which I guess she meant the ones that stimulate the clearest responses in the brain.

Another person quoted an opinion that shame is the master emotion. Ms. Wassman said it is a higher-order emotion. “You wouldn't start with that,” she said.


After the talk, Mr. Saalbach presented Ms. Wassman a plaque commemorating the event. He encouraged people to consider joining the Society. He made the parking announcement. Finally, at 9:36 pm, he adjourned the 2,201st meeting to the social hour.

The weather: Hazy and misty
The temperature: 1°C
Attendance: 57

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala,
Recording secretary


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