How the Brain Affects Emotions
The brain is the most complex organ in the body. Some may associate the brain with logic and rational thought, but it’s also the center of our emotions and influences everything from our decision-making to moods. Mostly all animals produce basic emotions like fear and anger, but humans have a set of higher social emotions like guilt, sadness, pride, shame and more.
Emotions are an essential part of our everyday lives that affect behaviour and actions. The five senses, sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell, are how we gather information about the world around us.
The brain is central to how we process and understand that information, and emotions are how we internalize information about the outside world and interpret what it means to us specifically. How much does the brain influence how we feel and how does it impact life?
How Does It Work: The Science
The Limbic System
Our emotions are controlled by a major network of the brain called the limbic system. It is made up of three main components: hypothalamus, hippocampus and amygdala.
The amygdala is referred to as the emotional center of the brain. Experiments with monkeys in the 1930s found that the amygdala is responsible for associating emotional significance to things, incidents and memories.
The hippocampus regulates our behaviour with respect to our emotions, while the hypothalamus controls autonomic biological functions like sweating, heart-rate, breathing, and hormones. Our bodies react differently based on which emotions we are feeling. For example, when you’re excited, your heart rate increases. When you’re scared, you sweat.
In addition to the three main components, chemicals called neurotransmitters influence emotion. Neurotransmitters chemically connect our brain to our body and regulate not only our emotions and mood, but also other important aspects of life like memory, cognition, and movement.
There are four main neurotransmitters emotions, Serotonin, GABA, Dopamine and Norepinephrine. While Serotonin and GABA are inhibitory neurotransmitters or ‘calming’ neurotransmitters, Dopamine and Norepinephrine are excitatory or ‘stimulating’ neurotransmitters. These two groups are complementary to each other and their levels balance each other out.
How Emotions Impact Behaviour
Emotions are expressed not only by facial expressions but also through speech and body language. There has long been a debate about whether expressions of emotions, such as facial expressions are learned through culture or if they occur naturally in every person.
Famous psychologist, Paul Ekman and his team identified six primary emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust and anger. People produce similar facial expressions for the basic emotions, no matter where they are born or their culture, so its argued that these are hardwired into the brain.
However, managing our facial expressions depends on certain cultural rules, known as display rules. In the Japanese culture it is considered offensive to express negative emotions in the presence of an authority figure. When a Japanese person experiences a negative emotion, like disgust or sadness, in the presence of authority, he or she may try to control their expressions.
Some difference in emotional expression have also been reported between men and women. Women are more expressive when it comes to happiness, sadness or love, while men express anger more. These differences are not absolute, but largely based on behavioural studies and observations. Thus, they are mere generalizations and depend mostly on cultural norms, social situations, upbringing and gender roles.
Emotions and Decision-Making
Decisions are also influenced by emotions. For example, when it gets dark, your eyes send a signal to your brain, and a fear response can motivate you to switch on the lights.
However, decisions are not solely ruled by emotions. They are also influenced by two key networks, the autobiographic memory network and the cognitive control network. These work together to balance self-reflection and the concentration required to complete tasks.
This balance is extremely important to keep us focussed on the important aspects of our lives. When people have imbalanced networks, they end up suffering from mood disorders.
Taking Care of Your Brain and Emotional Health
Neurotransmitters determine our moods and emotions. An imbalance in the level of different neurotransmitters causes numerous physical and psychological problems like fatigue, insomnia, obesity, pain, mood disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety, or compulsions.
To produce all the necessary neurotransmitters for healthy brain function, the body needs the right amount of proper nutrients. It’s also important to be aware of how certain substances and drugs can alter the emotional state.
Alcohol, cannabis, ecstasy and other recreational drugs can affect the mind in different ways. Alcohol can induce sadness and lead to depression, while cannabis can induce extreme happiness for a short period of time. Drugs interfere with the chemical balance of the brain, altering emotions and behaviours. As a result, people often make poor choices while under the influence.
The enjoyable high feeling fades and becomes a hangover period in which a person feels tired, irritated and physically sick. It is important to understand how the brain affects our emotions. When there are chemical imbalances within the brain, it can negatively impact a person’s emotional health and well-being.