Dr. Simone Kuhn of Ghent University and colleagues at the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience said the researchers scanned the brains of healthy participants and found that key brain systems were activated when choosing to suppress an emotion. They had previously linked this brain area to deciding to inhibit movement.
"This result shows that emotional self-control involves a quite different brain system from simply being told how to respond emotionally," Kuhn, the lead author, said in a statement.
The researchers showed 15 healthy women unpleasant or frightening pictures. The participants were given a choice to feel the emotion elicited by the image, or alternatively to inhibit the emotion, by distancing themselves through an act of self-control.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of the participants. They compared this brain activity to another experiment where the participants were instructed to feel or inhibit their emotions, rather than choose for themselves.
"We think controlling one's emotions and controlling one's behavior involve overlapping mechanisms," Kuhn said in a statement. "We should distinguish between voluntary and instructed control of emotions, in the same way as we can distinguish between making up our own mind about what do, versus following instructions."
The study was published in Brain Structure and Function.