Have you ever pondered what the science is behind the barely tangible, but extremely familiar daily experience of feeling emotions? Sometimes we feel these formless waves of inner communication so strongly that they seem to run the show. As a therapist I’m fascinated by the science of emotions.
In a recent article by Rick Hanson PhD, he shares some interesting information on the major brain regions that support our processing and experience of emotions. I’m going to give you a whistle stop tour of your brain, and the areas within it which influence our moods and feelings.
Our conscious experience of emotion is just the top layer of icing on a much bigger cake. It rests on many layers of neurological activity such as the firing of very complex and intertwining neural circuits and the tidal flows of neurotransmitters and hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
So let’s look at the brain regions and their role in our emotional experience.
- Hippocampus – This region helps store the contexts, especially visual-spatial ones, for important experiences, such as the smell of a predator or the look of an angry expression. It is necessary for forming personal memories of events, and is unfortunately damaged over time by the cortisol released by chronic stress, especially, high or even traumatic levels of stress. If you needed another good reason to resolve your stresses, and to take up meditation, then here you have it.
- Amygdala – Connected to the hippocampus by the neural equivalent of a four-lane superhighway, this small, almond shaped region is particularly involved in the processing of information about threats. The subjective awareness of threat comes from the feeling of the experience when it is unpleasant. When the amygdala perceives a threat – whether an external stimulus like a car hurtling towards us at speed, or an internal one, such as suddenly remembering we are on a tight project deadline – the amygdala sends a jolt of alarm to the hypothalamus and other brain regions. It also triggers the ventral tegmentum, in the brain stem, to send dopamine to other areas of the brain, in order to sensitize them to the “red flag” information streaming through.
- Hypothalamus – This is the major switchboard of the brain, involved in the regulation of basic bodily drives such as thirst and hunger. When it gets a “red flag” signal from the amygdala, it communicates to the pituitary gland to kick start the adrenals to release epinephrine and other stress hormones, to get the body ready for immediate Fight or Flight action, known as the Fight or Flight Response or the Stress Response. This very same activation of the Stress Response occurs not just when a wild tiger chases us through the woods, but also in a chronic and ongoing way to our ‘imagined’ threats and everyday stresses, like when our boss reprimands us, our deadlines get tight, or when we respond to internal mental events such as pain or anger etc.
- Prefrontal Cortex – This region is involved in anticipating the future, making plans, organizing action, monitoring results, changing plans, and settling conflicts between different goals. These are called the Executive Functions. Where emotion is concerned, the Prefrontal Cortex helps us to foresee the emotional rewards (or penalties) of different courses of action. It also inhibits emotional reactions. Many more nerve fibers head down from the Prefrontal Cortex to the Limbic System circuitry than in the other direction. The left side of the Prefrontal Cortex plays a special role in controlling negative emotion and aggression. For example, stroke victims whose left Prefrontal Cortex is damaged tend to become more irritable, distraught, and hostile. Activation of the left Prefrontal Cortex is associated with positive emotions, which, has been proven to be stimulated by long term meditation practice. Once again, just in case you needed any further motivation to meditate, you have it right here!
- Anterior Cingulate Cortex – This sits in the middle of the brain, centrally located for communication with the Prefrontal Cortex and the Limbic System. It monitors conflicts between different potential objects of attention, for example ‘Should I notice the flowers in these bushes or that snake slithering toward me?’, ‘Should I listen to my wife’s story or focus on this TV show?’. It flags these conflicts for resolution by the frontal lobes. Therefore, it lights up when we attend to emotionally relevant stimuli, or sustain our attention to important feelings – inside ourselves and other people – in the face of competing stimuli. In action, this would help us to read and sense emotions in others, instead of perhaps getting lured off track by their words which might attempt to contradict their true emotion.
- Nucleus Accumbens – In conditions of emotional arousal, especially fear-related, the accumbens receives a major wake-up call of dopamine, which primes it to receive information coming from the amygdala and other regions. Consequently, the accumbens sends more intense signals to the brain relay station for the motor systems, which results in heightened behavioral activity. This system works for both negative and positive feelings. For example, the accumbens would light up if an addict were to see their drug or drink of choice.
- Insula – The insula is involved in picking up the inner sensations of the body, the changes which come with different emotional states. It is the brain region which unlocks the deeper layers of your emotional life, and it is also key to empathy, to being able to sense the primary emotions in others, such as fear, pain, or disgust.
As a therapist and meditation coach I love to understand a little more about the inner mechanics of neural patterns, those very patterns, connections and brain regions which we are able to change for the better with effective therapy and meditation practices.
Neural plasticity is the term which is used by neuroscientists to describe the ever changing inner structure of connections and connectivity within the brain. The good news is, that your brain is not a genetically pre-determined lump of matter. It is plastic, and with the right guidance, interventions and practice, it can change in a way which results in more positive emotions, improved resilience, less stress, better concentration and quicker learning.
Lisa Bardell is a Performance Coach, NLP Master Coach, Clinical Hypnotherapist and Modern Meditation Coach running private clinics in the heart of the City of London ( Liverpool St ) and Cheshire, and Corporate Coaching Programmes for businesses in Manchester and London. Lisa leads regular Coaching Workshops and Retreats, tickets and details can be found in the Eventbrite link: