Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Affective Value and Associative Processing Share a Cortical Substrate

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Affective Value and Associative Processing Share a Cortical Substrate

Article excerpt

Published online: 23 October 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract The brain stores information in an associative manner so that contextually related entities are connected in memory. Such associative representations mediate the brain's ability to generate predictions about which other objects and events to expect in a given context. Likewise, the brain encodes and is able to rapidly retrieve the affective value of stimuli in our environment. That both contextual associations and affect serve as building blocks of numerous mental functions often makes interpretation of brain activation ambiguous. A critical brain region where such activation has often resulted in equivocal interpretation is the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), which has been implicated separately in both affective and associative processing. To characterize its role more unequivocally, we tested whether activity in the mOFC was most directly attributable to affective processing, associative processing, or a combination of both. Subjects performed an object recognition task while undergoing fMRI scans. Objects varied independently in their affective valence and in their degree of association with other objects (associativity). Analyses revealed an overlapping sensitivity whereby the leftmOFC responded both to increasingly positive affective value and to stronger associativity. These two properties individually accounted for mOFC response, even after controlling for their interrelationship. The role of the mOFC is either general enough to encompass associations that link stimuli both with reinforcing outcomes and with other stimuli or abstract enough to use both valence and associativity in conjunction to inform downstream processes related to perception and action. These results may further point to a fundamental relationship between associativity and positive affect.

Keywords Valence . Context . Prefrontal cortex . Object recognition Introduction


Affective and associative processes are both crucial for an individual's ability to understand and act in the world. To best anticipate how to respond to a newly presented object, the brain immediately begins the process of object recognition, while also extracting the motivational relevance (or affective value) of that object. In so doing, the brain quickly and efficiently activates relevant associations that give rise to focused predictions (i.e., "what other objects or contexts might go with this object?"; Bar, 2004, 2009; Chun & Jiang, 2003; Oliva & Torralba, 2007). The ease with which a stimulus brings to mind other related stimuli and contexts (what we will refer to as its associativity)1 is central to research into memory, prospection, imagination, and scene construction (Bar, 2004; Bar, Aminoff, Mason, & Fenske, 2007; Barsalou, 2009; Bartlett, 1932; Bower, 2008; Eichenbaum & Fortin, 2009; James, 1890). Similarly, the brain quickly predicts an object's affective value-in particular, its valence (i.e., "is this something pleasant/approachable or unpleasant/to-be-avoided?"; Barrett&Bliss-Moreau, 2009; Cabanac, 2002; Damasio, 1994; Rolls, 1986; Russell, 2003). These two domains of prediction are supported by vast yet largely nonoverlapping psychological and neuroscientific literatures, despite indications that they might share some cognitive and neural mechanisms (Andrews-Hanna, Reidler, Sepulcre, Poulin, & Buckner, 2010; Barrett & Bar, 2009; D'Argembeau et al., 2009). One region in particular that is consistently implicated in both fields of research is the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC; meta-analytic summary in Roy, Shohamy, & Wager, 2012).

Cognitive neuroscientific research has shown that regions of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (PFC; including the mOFC) are involved in tasks that engage associative processing, including those that do so through recall of past autobiographical experiences (e.g., Burianova & Grady, 2007; Denkova, Botzung, Scheiber, & Manning, 2006), imagination of possible future events (e. …

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