Columbia University in the City of New York

Credit: John Abbott

Daniel Salzman, MD, PhD

Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience; Principal Investigator at Columbia's Zuckerman Institute

Any transformative treatment for psychiatric illness will come from gaining fundamental new insights about the interplay of emotion and cognition in the brain.

Daniel Salzman explores why we often feel strong emotions in response to things we see. His ultimate goal is to map the brain circuitry that underlies emotion, as well as understand how this circuitry can go awry in psychiatric conditions, such as fear or panic disorders.

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Mapping the Emotional Brain

How do feelings guide our learning and behavior?

“Any transformative treatment for psychiatric illness,” says Daniel Salzman, MD, PhD, “will come from gaining fundamental new insights about the interplay of emotion and cognition in the brain.” Dr. Salzman, who trained as a psychiatrist as well as a neuroscientist, says his clinical experience has shaped his work in at least two ways. First, it helps him communicate the importance of his work, both to physicians and to a broader audience, since he is used to speaking with medical colleagues and to patients. And second, it shapes the questions his lab finds important to answer. As a principal investigator at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, he studies the underlying brain circuitry related to emotion that in psychiatric disorders tends to go awry.

Dr. Salzman’s lab studies emotional processes in a part of the brain called the amygdala — a key coordinator of emotion — as well as in interconnected brain structures. For example, the amygdala is linked to the prefrontal cortex, an area responsible for planning and controlling behavior, via a bidirectional wiring system. This allows emotion to influence, and in turn be influenced by, reason.

The amygdala also communicates bidirectionally with sensory areas, and with the hippocampus, a coordinator of memory. This interaction explains why emotional memories are so strong. You might remember what you were doing when you learned President John F. Kennedy was killed, but not what you were doing the day before.  

Dr. Salzman focuses on three aspects of emotional processing. The first is the coordination of emotion in response to different stimuli and events. There are generally two types of emotional responses: reactions to innately meaningful stimuli, such as an electric shock; and reactions to things that are initially neutral but come to be seen as meaningful over time. For example, you do not get excited at the sight of chocolate cake until after the first time you try it.

The second aspect of emotional processing that Dr. Salzman studies is how cognitive processes — such as our ability to reason — regulate our emotional responses. To understand how the brain regulates emotion, picture the game of blackjack. Being dealt a 10 means very different things depending on whether you have 12 points already or 11. The card itself is a single stimulus, but in one case you lose and in the other you win. So understanding rules and context affects how we react emotionally.

The final aspect of his research concerns how emotions themselves can influence our behavior. “I’m a wine nut,” Dr. Salzman offers as an example. “If you invite me to your house for dinner and put two bottles of wine on the table, where one is nothing special and the other is a fancy Burgundy Grand Cru, my gaze and all my attention will be focused on the more exciting or emotionally meaningful bottle.” Similar processes also underlie social interaction. We read others by attending to meaningful expressions and body language. The social difficulty that people with autism experience may come in part from problems with focusing on these cues.  

Dr. Salzman did not go to medical school thinking he would become a neuroscientist. But perhaps the choice was inevitable. “The problem that psychiatrists frequently face,” Dr. Salzman says, “is that they must play the role of auto mechanic without knowing how the car normally runs. I want to help understand how the engine works that runs our emotional lives.”