The SANe group investigates the neural and psychological bases of social and affective processing in healthy human beings. Our aim is to research processes that allow individuals to understand, predict and respond to others. We are therefore interested in exploring empathy, theory of mind and emotions and how these are represented in the brain. To do so, we use behavioral and neuroimaging techniques, often in combination with naturalistic stimulation (e.g., movies, narratives, real social interactions).
We strongly believe in open science and commit to its principles by sharing code and data from our experiments.



Principal InvestigatorAssistant Professor, PhDScholar, ResearchGate, Twitter, CV
Guest Researcher, PhD
MSCA Fellow @ CPPLab
Scholar, ResearchGate, Twitter
Methods Developer, MD, PhDScholar, ResearchGate, Twitter
PhD Student
PhD Student
MD, PhD Student
PhD Student
PhD Student
PhD Student


How male and female literary authors write about affect across cultures and over historical periods

Lettieri, Handjaras, Bucci, Pietrini & Cecchetti Affec Sci, 2023. DOI: 10.1007/s42761-023-00219-9
ABSTRACT: A wealth of literature suggests the existence of sex differences in how emotions are experienced, recognized, expressed, and regulated. However, to what extent these differences result from the put in place of stereotypes and social rules is still a matter of debate. Literature is an essential cultural institution, a transposition of the social life of people but also of their intimate affective experiences, which can serve to address questions of psychological relevance. Here, we created a large corpus of literary fiction enriched by authors’ metadata to measure the extent to which culture influences how men and women write about emotion. Our results show that even though before the twenty-first century and across 116 countries women more than men have written about affect, starting from 2000, this difference has diminished substantially. Also, in the past, women’s narratives were more positively laden and less arousing. While the difference in arousal is ubiquitous and still present nowadays, sex differences in valence vary as a function of culture and have dissolved in recent years. Altogether, these findings suggest that historic evolution is associated with men and women writing similarly about emotions and reveal a sizable impact of culture on the affective characteristics of the lexicon.
ABSTRACT: In brain-wide association studies (BWAS), researchers correlate behavior with the inter-individual variability in functional or structural properties of distinct brain regions. Marek, Tervo-Clemmens, and colleagues (hereinafter, M&TC) empirically assess statistical power, replication rate, type I error, sign error, and effect size inflation in BWAS using data from three large-scale neuroimaging initiatives (i.e., ABCD, Human Connectome Project - HCP -, and UK Biobank). Their results indicate that reproducible brain-behavior associations require thousands of observations. Here, leveraging synthetic and HCP data, we demonstrate that their calculations overestimate the sample size needed to detect reproducible effects by one order of magnitude.

Default and Control networks connectivity dynamics track the stream of affect at multiple timescales

Lettieri, Handjaras, Setti, Cappello, Bruno, Diano, Leo, Ricciardi, Pietrini, CecchettiSCAN, 2021. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsab112
ABSTRACT: In everyday life the stream of affect results from the interaction between past experiences, expectations, and the unfolding of events. How the brain represents the relationship between time and affect has been hardly explored, as it requires modeling the complexity of everyday life in the laboratory setting. Movies condense into hours a multitude of emotional responses, synchronized across subjects and characterized by temporal dynamics alike real-world experiences. Here, we use time-varying intersubject brain synchronization and real-time behavioral reports to test whether connectivity dynamics track changes in affect during movie watching. Results show that polarity and intensity of experiences relate to connectivity of the default mode and control networks and converge in the right temporo-parietal cortex. We validate these results in two experiments including four independent samples, two movies, and alternative analysis workflows. Lastly, we reveal chronotopic connectivity maps within temporo-parietal and prefrontal cortex, where adjacent areas preferentially encode affect at specific timescales.

Emotionotopy in the human right temporo-parietal cortex

Lettieri, Handjaras, Ricciardi, Leo, Papale, Betta, Pietrini, CecchettiNature Communications, 2019. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-13599-z
ABSTRACT: Humans use emotions to decipher complex cascades of internal events. However, which mechanisms link descriptions of affective states to brain activity is unclear, with evidence supporting either local or distributed processing. A biologically favorable alternative is provided by the notion of gradient, which postulates the isomorphism between functional representations of stimulus features and cortical distance. Here, we use fMRI activity evoked by an emotionally charged movie and continuous ratings of the perceived emotion intensity to reveal the topographic organization of affective states. Results show that three orthogonal and spatially overlapping gradients encode the polarity, complexity and intensity of emotional experiences in right temporo-parietal territories. The spatial arrangement of these gradients allows the brain to map a variety of affective states within a single patch of cortex. As this organization resembles how sensory regions represent psychophysical properties (e.g., retinotopy), we propose emotionotopy as a principle of emotion coding.

ROI and phobias: The effect of ROI approach on an ALE meta‐analysis of specific phobias

Gentili, Messerotti Benvenuti, Lettieri, Costa, CecchettiHuman Brain Mapping, 2019. DOI: 10.1002/hbm.24492
ABSTRACT: About 90% of fMRI findings on specific phobias (SP) include analysis of region of interest (ROI). This approach characterized by higher sensitivity may produce inflated results, particularly when findings are aggregated in meta‐analytic maps. Here, we conducted a systematic review and activation likelihood estimation (ALE) meta‐analysis on SP, testing the impact of the inclusion of ROI‐based studies. ALE meta‐analyses were carried out either including ROI‐based results or focusing on whole‐brain voxelwise studies exclusively. To assess the risk of bias in the neuroimaging field, we modified the Newcastle–Ottawa Scale (NOS) and measured the reliability of fMRI findings. Of the 31 selected investigations (564 patients and 485 controls) one‐third did not motivate ROI selection: five studies did not report an explicit rationale, whereas four did not cite any specific reference in this regard. Analyses including ROI‐based studies revealed differences between phobics and healthy subjects in several regions of the limbic circuit. However, when focusing on whole‐brain analysis, only the anterior midcingulate cortex differentiated SP from controls. Notably, 13 studies were labeled with low risk of bias according to the adapted NOS. The inclusion of ROI‐based results artificially inflates group differences in fMRI meta‐analyses. Moreover, a priori, well‐motivated selection of ROIs is desirable to improve quality and reproducibility in SP neuroimaging studies. Lastly, the use of modified NOS may represent a valuable way to assess and evaluate biases in fMRI studies: “low risk” of bias was reported for less than half of the included studies, indicating the need for better practices in fMRI.


ReMoTa: Real-time Movie Tagging

Time-varying Intersubject Functional Correlation


[2022] Sampaolo - Exploring the association between movie genres and real-time reports of the affective experience. 30th Conference of the Italian Association of Psychology (AIP), Padova (Italy), 27-30 September 2022.

[2022] Cecchetti - How the brain represents one’s feelings: mapping the pleasantness and intensity of the emotional experience during naturalistic stimulation. 30th Annual Conference of the Italian Society of Psychophysiology and Cognitive Neuroscience (SIPF), Udine (Italy), 15-17 September 2022.

[2022] Lettieri - Looking for emotions in the absence of sight: how sensory deprivation impacts affective experience. 30th Annual Conference of the Italian Society of Psychophysiology and Cognitive Neuroscience (SIPF), Udine (Italy), 15-17 September 2022.

[2022] Giannakopoulou - How has Affective Neuroscience evolved over the last decades?. 6th European Society for Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (ESCAN) meeting, Vienna (Austria), 19-22 July 2022.

[2022] Ayele - Recipe for a good meme: cognitive and emotional effects on internet. KC Webinars (University of Bologna), Virtual Meeting, 1 July 2022.

[2022] Lettieri - The representation of affect in vmPFC and pSTG is independent from sensory modality and experience. Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM), Glasgow (Scotland), 19-23 June 2022.

[2022] Radecki - Theory of mind, gender, and human progress | Empathy, psychopathy, and brain structure. ARClub Seminars, University of Cambridge, Cambridge (UK), 20 June 2022.

[2022] Lettieri - Brain connectivity of right temporo-parietal and frontal regions reflects dynamic properties of the affective. Consortium of European Research on Emotion (CERE), Granada (Spain) 10-11 July 2022.

[2021] Lettieri - The categorical representation of affect in ventromedial prefrontal cortex is independent from the sensory modality and visual experience. Annual Conference of the Italian Society of Psychophysiology and Cognitive Neuroscience (SIPF), 30 September - 02 October 2021.

[2021] Cecchetti - Decoding brain activity: classification, inference and related issues. 28th Conference of the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology (ESPP), Virtual Meeting, 30 August - 02 September 2021

[2021] Lettieri - Data sharing di dati comportamentali e di neuroimmagine nelle neuroscienze affettive e sociali. Think Open Rovereto Symposium 2021, Virtual Meeting, 17 June 2021.

[2021] Lettieri - A network-based hierarchical taxonomy of affect from language. Society for Affective Science (SAS) Annual Conference, Virtual Meeting, 13-16 April 2021.

[2021] Cappello - How far in the future can we predict others' affective states?. European Congress of Psychiatry (EPA), Virtual Meeting, 10-13 April 2021.

[2021] Lettieri - Chronotopic encoding of emotional dimensions in the human brain assessed by fMRI. European Congress of Psychiatry (EPA), Virtual Meeting, 10-13 April 2021.

[2020] Lettieri - Emotionotopy in the human right temporo-parietal cortex. Annual Conference of the Italian Society of Psychophysiology and Cognitive Neuroscience (SIPF), Virtual Meeting, 28 November 2020. Junior Researcher Award.

[2019] Handjaras - Gradient-based analysis of cortical topography using fMRI. Satellite event of the Annual Conference of the Italian Society of Psychophysiology and Cognitive Neuroscience (SIPF), Ferrara (Italy), 14 November 2019.

[2019] Cecchetti - Decoding brain activity: classification accuracy and related issues. Satellite event of the Annual Conference of the Italian Society of Psychophysiology and Cognitive Neuroscience (SIPF), Ferrara (Italy), 14 November 2019.

[2019] Lettieri - Emotional experience timecourse explains brain connectivity dynamics during naturalistic stimulation. Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM), Rome (Italy), 9-13 June 2019. OHBM Merit Award.

[2018] Lettieri - Emotions induced by naturalistic stimuli explain right hemisphere activity in an independent sample. Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM), Singapore (Republic of Singapore), 17-21 June 2018.


Claudio Gentili - Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy)

Ioana Alina Cristea - Università degli Studi di Pavia (Italy)

Francesca Garbarini - Università degli Studi di Torino (Italy)

Marco Viola - Università degli Studi di Torino (Italy)

Rosalba Morese - Università della Svizzera italiana (Switzerland)

Valentina Petrolini - University of the Basque Country (Spain)

Olivier Collignon - Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium)