19 April 2022

Cognitive reappraisal is a widely-used method to improve ones emotional control. It involves the recognition of negative thought patterns, and gradually changing them to more effective patterns. However, it seems that the cognitive load during reappraisal, rather than the the reappraisal itself, regulates our emotions. This has been shown by a recently published study, where Radboudumc and Donders Institute researchers investigated the role of executive control in emotion regulation. Their results are published in Human Brain Mapping.

Successful regulation of our emotions can be established by reappraising a threatening situation into something less aversive. It is thought that emotion regulation is established by activation of brain regions involved in executive control, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Activation of this region, in turn, leads to the inhibition of an almond-shaped brain structure, called the amygdala, which is responsible for processing our emotions. The involvement of the amygdala is critical in the initial detection of potential threat, and its inhibition could therefore underlie the emotion regulatory outcome.

Interestingly, many cognitively demanding tasks such as making math calculations or playing a game of Tetris also activate these executive control regions of the brain. Therefore, a more parsimonious explanation for the amygdala inhibition found during cognitive reappraisal, is that it is driven by the cognitively demanding nature of reappraisal and not per se by the act of the reappraisal itself.

Using a meta-analytic approach, Linda de Voogd and Erno Hermans found that a typical working memory task can systematically downregulate the amygdala similar to cognitive reappraisal. Therefore, it may be possible to regulate our emotions simply by performing a cognitively demanding task. This can include making math calculations or playing a game of Tetris. If this is indeed the mechanism behind the amygdala inhibition, it may be possible to applying cognitively demanding tasks in clinical settings as an alternative emotion regulation strategy.


de Voogd, L. D. and Hermans E. J. Meta-analytic evidence for downregulation of the amygdala during working memory maintenance. Human Brain Mapping. 2022 Mar;1-21. DOI: 10.1002/hbm.25828. Epub 2022 Mar 29.

Related news items

The effects of dopamine levels on reward responsivity

25 November 2021 To adapt to the ever-changing context in which we live, we are constantly deciding how much effort to put into performing our behavior, or how fast to perform our actions. How do people decide how fast to act and how does the brain compute this? Our researchers set out to investigate this. read more

Adverse effects of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in bipolar disorder

18 November 2021 Mindfulness is often described as “being aware of our present moment experience, in a friendly and non-judgmental way”. As research into mindfulness, and psychotherapy in general, has mainly been focused on positive outcomes, not much is known about the possibility of adverse effects. read more

Dutch institutions sign agreement about their research using animals

11 November 2021 Radboudumc, Radboud University and 13 other organisations involved in animal testing in the Netherlands have signed the Dutch Transparency Agreement on Animal Testing. The institutes commit themselves to communicate in a more open way about how animals are used in research. read more

Why we are curious about 'useless' information A neurocognitive explanation

13 October 2021 In our daily lives, we are exposed to an overload of information. We found ourselves to be curious about both 'useful' information such as weather forecasts, and 'useless' information such as the infinite content on social media. A new study provides us a cognitive explanation to such curiosity. read more