The Anatomy of Our Emotions: Which Brain Part Controls It?

Almost everyone has heard the expressions "listen to your heart" or "love comes from the heart." But where do our emotions, which we experience every hour and day, come from? As some of you may have guessed, our emotions come from the brain, the most complicated organ in our bodies. But let’s see which part of the brain controls emotions and how we could learn to control them better.

Key takeaways:

Which part of the brain controls emotions

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Our emotions are complex experiences that differ from person to person; however, everyone's emotions are governed by the same area of the brain - the limbic system.

The limbic system is a group of brain structures that communicate with one another. Imagine that our limbic system is an orchestra conductor, with different groups of instruments representing different parts of the system and different pieces of music representing neurotransmitters, chemical structures that communicate between brain neurons.

Our emotions are like the final performance on stage, with different instruments and sheet music causing different feelings.

Love

There are many books, songs, and stories about the feeling of love. It sometimes drives us crazy, makes us sad or foolish, and other times it makes us feel truly happy. The neurotransmitters of happiness and affection, such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, are linked to falling in love.

The ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the caudate nucleus are active parts of the brain when we feel love. This part of our brain is also known as the reward circuit. It plays a role in pleasure, motivation, and reward.

Anger

When we experience a surge of anger, our amygdala takes center stage. This almond-shaped structure is in charge of detecting frightening, dangerous, or threatening situations. This reflex, which is also known as the "fight-or-flight" response, is set off by the amygdala. It gets our bodies ready to either fight for our lives or run away as fast as we can. Think of the amygdala as the brain's alarm system. It sets off fiery emotions like anger when it senses danger.

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Happiness

A part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens is an important part of the brain's reward system. This system is what makes us feel happy. When we are happy, this part of the brain releases dopamine, which acts as a pleasure chemical and reinforces behaviors that make us feel good. It's the brain's way of encouraging us to seek out and relish positive experiences.

Fear

Fear, while not a pleasant emotion, is an important part of our survival and evolution. Once more, the almond-shaped amygdala, which we talked about earlier, takes center stage here. The fight-or-flight response happens almost instantly, and people often realize that they did not even realize they were in danger before they acted.

When the amygdala senses danger and makes us afraid, it releases noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter linked to fear. This does its job of setting off the body's stress response.

Sadness

When we are sad or blue, our brains are active all the way from the limbic system, which is like the conductor of an orchestra, to the prefrontal cortex, which is like the control center for our higher thinking.

The prefrontal cortex, which controls reasoning and emotion, tries to make sense of sadness, while the amygdala processes emotions, creating a complex melancholy experience. The hippocampus, which stores and forms memories, is also involved in sorrow, which is why specific memories can bring back sadness.

How do the emotions form in our brain?

Our limbic system generates emotions in the brain. According to research on emotions, there are four main structures in our brain:

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  • Amygdala. The almond-shaped structure, while primarily responsive to negative environmental cues that would trigger our fight-or-flight response, is also involved in processing, for example, the facial expressions of others, from happiness to surprise or fear.
  • Ventral striatum. This area is involved in learning and memory, meaning that it is involved in predicting behaviors or rewards. For example, when you find a present for someone for whom you know they have been looking for a long time, you feel accomplishment and happiness because you are expecting another person to be happy about it.
  • Ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This area of the limbic system is involved in motivation, as has been learned from previous experiences. It is also active in complying with current goals; for example, if you decide to eat healthy, this area will be active when you see healthy foods but not unhealthy foods, making you more willing or happy to maintain a healthy diet and achieve your goal.
  • Insula. This area is involved with processing negative emotional experiences. At the same time, this area of the brain is active when we think about ourselves and how we feel—inward feelings and sensations from the body.

Controlling our emotions in the brain

The prefrontal cortex of the brain, located just above our eyes and behind the brow, is a brain control center. This part of the brain is active when we regulate our emotions; we either act out or suppress our emotional response. Because this area of the brain fully develops in early adulthood, around the age of 20, teenagers and children have more difficulty regulating their emotions, which can result in tantrums, acting out, and increased intensity of the emotional spectrum.

Some practices can help us understand and regulate our emotional reactions to the environment. For example, mindfulness practices such as concentration or becoming aware of one's own feelings and their origin. Cognitive-behavioral practices can aid in the management of negative thought patterns and the modification of emotional reactions to triggers.

Human emotions are complex, as is our brain, which generates these emotions. Our emotional responses are controlled by the limbic system, a group of brain structures. This system is extremely deep, almost in the center of the human brain. The limbic system was an important part of our evolutionary development, allowing us to survive and evolve. Aside from basic survival emotions like fear, the limbic system is in charge of our desires, motivation, sticking to our goals, and, most importantly, love.

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