Fighting with a spouse or significant other is generally a downer. But how easily a person bounces back after the conflict can be predicted by activity in a specific region of the brain, a new study finds.
The results show that after couples fight, those with high activity in a certain outer brain region are less likely to be upset the next day, while those with low activity are more likely to be in a bad mood, continue to mull over the argument in their heads, and turn to alcohol or drugs.
The study is unique in that it relied on experiments outside the laboratory to look at how activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex — part of the brain's outside layer — relates to responses to real-life situations.
The lateral prefrontal cortex is thought to be involved in the way people control their emotions, with more activity linked to more emotional resilience. For instance, people are less distressed by gruesome pictures if they have high activity in this region. And malfunctions in this brain area could be involved in psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar disorder.
The current study enrolled 27 participants who had been dating a partner for at least three months (11 subjects were couples, and 5 had partners who did not take part in the research).
They had their brains scanned while looking at images of their significant other posing with various facial expressions: positive (happy, flirty, caring, pleasantly surprised), negative (anger, disgust, disappointment, contempt), and neutral.
The participants also kept an online diary for three weeks, and noted any fights and their moods following an argument.
In general, the subjects' lateral prefrontal cortex showed more activity when looking at the negative and positive facial expression compared with the neutral one.
The subjects' brain activity predicted how they reacted after their arguments. Those who showed less brain activity while looking at their partners' negative facial expression were more likely to report a negative mood the next day along with substance use and thoughts of the argument, while the opposite was true for those with high brain activity.
When there wasn't an argument, there was no relationship between brain activity and mood and behavior. The results held even after the researchers accounted for whether or not the subjects were prone to negative moods.
"The key factor is that the brain activity in the scanner predicted their experience in life," said study author Christine Hooker, a psychologist at Harvard University. "Scientists believe that what we are looking at in the scanner has relevance to daily life, but obviously we don't live our lives in a scanner. If we can connect what we see in the scanner to somebody's day-to-day emotion-regulation capacity, it could help psychologists predict how well people will respond to stressful events in their lives."
Since the findings were based on subjects' self-reports, more research is needed to examine the link.
The results were published in the March issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.