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Warm and cold stimuli have affective components such as feeling pleasant or unpleasant, and these components may have survival value, for approach to warmth and avoidance of cold may be reinforcers or goals for action built into us during evolution to direct our behaviour to stimuli that are appropriate for survival. Understanding the brain processing that underlies these prototypical reinforcers provides a direct approach to understanding the brain mechanisms of emotion. In an fMRI investigation in humans, we showed that the mid-orbitofrontal and pregenual cingulate cortex and the ventral striatum have activations that are correlated with the subjective pleasantness ratings made to warm (41 degrees C) and cold (12 degrees C) stimuli, and combinations of warm and cold stimuli, applied to the hand. Activations in the lateral and some more anterior parts of the orbitofrontal cortex were correlated with the unpleasantness of the stimuli. In contrast, activations in the somatosensory cortex and ventral posterior insula were correlated with the intensity but not the pleasantness of the thermal stimuli. A principle thus appears to be that processing related to the affective value and associated subjective emotional experience of thermal stimuli that are important for survival is performed in different brain areas to those where activations are related to sensory properties of the stimuli such as their intensity. This conclusion appears to be the case for processing in a number of sensory modalities, and the finding with such prototypical stimuli as warm and cold provides strong support for this principle.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





1504 - 1513


Adult, Cerebral Cortex, Cold Temperature, Emotions, Female, Hot Temperature, Humans, Image Processing, Computer-Assisted, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Male, Neostriatum, Physical Stimulation, Somatosensory Cortex, Temperature