New brain imaging research sheds light on the neural underpinnings of emotional intelligence

New brain imaging research sheds light on the neural underpinnings of emotional intelligence


Recently published neuroimaging research provides evidence that the directional connectivity between several brain regions plays an important role in emotional processing abilities.

Although interest in emotional intelligence has been steadily growing since the 1990s, the underlying neural mechanisms behind it have yet to be clearly established. The new study, which appears in NeuroImage, is part of a process to begin to fill in this gap in scientific knowledge.

“Emotional intelligence is one of the least studied topics, especially in conjunction with cutting-edge computational neuroimaging techniques,” explained lead researcher Sahil Bajaj, the director of the Multimodal Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory at Boys Town National Research Hospital.

“For the last 11 years, I have been using some cutting-edge neuroimaging techniques, including directed functional (e.g., Granger causality) and effective (e.g., dynamic causal modeling) brain connectivity, which allow estimation of directional information flow among brain regions.”

“While most of the existing studies have focused on small-scale functional brain connectivity correlates of emotional intelligence, to my knowledge, no work (prior to this work) has ever been published that talked about the association between strength of directional information flow among brain regions and emotional intelligence,” Bajaj said. “I have always been fascinated by directionality of information flow among brain areas, which really raised my interest in exploring the complex causal neural interactions underlying emotional intelligence.”

Methodology and key findings

In their study, the researchers used resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the strength of effective connectivity within the brain networks of 55 healthy individuals. The researchers were particularly interested in the default mode network, dorsal-attention network, control-execution network, and salience network.

In addition to undergoing brain scans, the participants also completed the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, a psychological assessment of one’s ability to perceive, manage, and understand emotions.

The researchers found that effective connectivity within the brain’s control-execution network and salience network was related to levels of emotional intelligence.

“We found that directed interactions among several brain regions and networks (i.e., frontal, parietal, cingulate and insular regions within the control-execution and salience networks) provide important neural underpinnings of emotional intelligence. These brain connections appear to form key building blocks of emotional intelligence,” Bajaj told PsyPost.

“Simply put, we found that measures of directional (or effective) connectivity may potentially be utilized as important biomarkers to understand the complex neural interactions underlying emotional intelligence and may prove useful for assessing the outcomes of interventions aimed at strengthening emotional intelligence abilities.”

The importance of emotional intelligence

“Emotional intelligence involves affective self-regulation. In our daily lives, it is very important to stay emotionally strong. People who are unable or feel difficulty in effectively controlling their negative emotions (like anger, irritability, or even suicidal thoughts) are more susceptible to poor physical health (e.g., heart related disease and abnormal blood pressure), poor mental health (e.g., depressive symptoms), and sleep disorders (e.g., insomnia),” Bajaj explained.

“Moreover, in this corporate world, factors such as meaningful human connections, positive working atmosphere, creativity and productivity can only be created by growing emotional intelligence. While we know that emotional intelligence is important, there remains a lot we don’t know about how these abilities work in the brain.”


Bajaj and his colleagues plan to conduct future studies that utilize other types of brain imaging technology and include larger sample sizes.

“One of the major caveats of this study was that it involved analysis of only one kind of brain scan. Directed neural interactions using task-based fMRI data, white-matter properties using diffusion tensor imaging, and quantification of brain morphometry using neuroanatomical data, and their associations with emotional intelligence were not explored in this study. Future studies with specific focus on such data types may provide a complete picture of emotional intelligence,” Bajaj said.

“These data provide the foundation for future work on emotional intelligence in my lab at Boys Town National Research Hospital, where we are currently collecting multimodal neuroimaging data from adolescents with a variety of emotional, behavioral and mental health problems.”

Part of a larger scientific project on emotional intelligence

The current work is part of a larger project that is funded by U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command (USAMRDC) and was initiated by Bajaj’s mentor, William D. “Scott” Killgore, a neuropsychologist and director of the Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN) Lab at the University of Arizona.

“The overarching goal of that effort is to understand the brain systems involved in emotional intelligence and how we might be able to enhance these capacities in people,” Bajaj told PsyPost. “We know that emotional intelligence is critical to success in so many areas of life, but we have lacked a basic understanding what makes some people more emotionally intelligent than others and whether it might be possible to modify those factors. Dr. Killgore’s USAMRDC funded work has been focusing on filling those gaps for the past decade.”

“I would like to thank SCAN lab and in particular Dr. Killgore for all his help and support in this project, and the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, which provided Dr. Killgore with the funding to run the study and collect the data reported in this paper,” Bajaj added. “I would also like to thank Dr. Adeel Razi for his consistent help with effective connectivity analysis, and my current institute Boys Town National Research Hospital for providing me all the resources to complete this project.”

The study, “Association between emotional intelligence and effective brain connectome: A large-scale spectral DCM study“, was published online on January 14, 2021.


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