An increasing number of biometeorological and psychological studies have demonstrated the importance and complexity of the processes involved in environmental thermal perception in humans. However, extant functional imaging data on thermal perception have yet to fully reveal the neural mechanisms underlying these processes because most studies were performed using local thermal stimulation and did not dissociate thermal sensation from comfort. Thus, for the first time, the present study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and manipulated ambient temperature during brain measurement to independently explore the neural correlates of thermal sensation and comfort. There were significant correlations between the sensation of a lower temperature and activation in the left dorsal posterior insula, putamen, amygdala, and bilateral retrosplenial cortices but no significant correlations were observed between brain activation and thermal comfort. The dorsal posterior insula corresponds to the phylogenetically new thermosensory cortex whereas the limbic structures (i.e., amygdala and retrosplenial cortex) and dorsal striatum may be associated with supramodal emotional representations and the behavioral motivation to obtain heat, respectively. The co-involvement of these phylogenetically new and old systems may explain the psychological processes underlying the flexible psychological and behavioral thermo-environmental adaptations that are unique to humans.
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