The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It produces our every thought, action, memory, feeling, and experience of the world. This jelly-like mass of tissue, weighing in at around 1.4 kilograms, contains a staggering one hundred billion nerve cells, or neurons. The complexity of the connectivity between these cells is mind-boggling. Each neuron can make contact with thousands or even tens of thousands of others, via tiny structures called synapses. Our brains form a million new connections for every second of our lives. The pattern and strength of the connections are constantly changing and no two brains are alike. It is in these changing connections that memories are stored, habits learned and personalities shaped, by reinforcing certain patterns of brain activity and losing others.
In this article, we will be talking about how our brain controls our emotions, and what is the relation between them. The brain is a very complex organ. It controls and coordinates everything from the movement of your fingers to your heart rate. The brain also plays a crucial role in how you control and process your emotions. Sadness from heartache, elation at finding a long-lost friend, anxiety before a job interview — you might like to think you’re completely in control of what you feel and that you understand what causes those feelings. But your brain can be sneaky sometimes. A lot is going on inside your head, and your brain and its complex processes are even manipulating your emotions. In other words, there’s way more behind that angry feeling than the car that just cut you off. Much is involved in interpreting emotional circumstances and crafting your responses to them, and your brain is affecting how you feel and how you respond to those feelings in ways you’ve probably not even aware of. This leads us to ask: What’s going on up there, and just how is your brain influencing your emotions?
As we all know, emotions are complex. Psychologists say that we have only 6 basic emotions, which are happiness, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, and disgust. All of our other emotions are built from the 6 basic emotions. For example, jealousy stems from a combined feeling of anger or sadness, while satisfaction can be a type of happiness. When it comes to emotions, it turns out that there are regions in the brain, specifically in the limbic system, that are associated with each of the 6 main emotions. Emotions are actually experiences that are associated with the activation of certain regions in the brain. Experts still have a lot of questions about the brain’s role in a range of emotions, but they’ve pinpointed the origins of some common ones, including fear, anger, happiness, and love.
A limbic system is a group of interconnected structures located deep within the brain. It’s the part of the brain that’s responsible for behavioral and emotional responses. From a biological standpoint, fear is a very important emotion. It helps you respond appropriately to threatening situations that could harm you. This response is generated by the stimulation of the amygdala, followed by the hypothalamus. This is why some people with brain damage affecting their amygdala don’t always respond appropriately to dangerous scenarios.
When the amygdala stimulates the hypothalamus, it initiates the fight-or-flight response. The hypothalamus sends signals to the adrenal glands to produce hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. In addition to initiating the fight-or-flight response, the amygdala also plays a role in fear learning. This refers to the process by which you develop an association between certain situations and feelings of fear.
The way the brain processes and regulates emotions can be studied using a technique called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI scanner looks like a big tunnel. Actually, it is just a very fancy camera that is able to take images of all the parts inside your body. For example, an MRI camera can take an image of the bones in your leg, of your beating heart, or of the organ we are interested in – the brain. We can use the MRI camera to look at the structure (shape and size) of the brain. When we want to see how the brain works, then we can use an MRI camera to look at brain function. Just as you need more food when you do sports, your brain also needs more energy when it becomes active, but instead of food, it needs oxygen. Therefore, when a specific region in the brain is hard at work, it will get more oxygen transported to it by the bloodstream. We call this blood oxygen-rich. Oxygen-rich blood gives different signals to the MRI camera compared with blood that has less oxygen. Using this knowledge, researchers can create an image of both the brain’s structure and function. With special computer programs, we can make pictures. One of the most amazing things is that the MRI camera can take pictures of your brain at work without even touching you! But there are some challenges for people who take part in research studies using an MRI.
To summarize, emotions are feelings that are processed by a team of brain regions. Emotion processing is a complicated process, which sometimes does not work so well. Difficulties with emotion processing and regulation are found in children and teenagers with very aggressive and antisocial behavior. Using structural and functional neuroimaging techniques, we showed that areas of the emotion-processing network of the brain are different in the youths with aggressive behavior. Luckily, the brain has the ability to change and adapt, especially when people are still young. The more we know about how our brain develops and how it processes and regulates emotions, the more we can help children with emotion processing problems. This knowledge also helps doctors to choose the most helpful treatment for these children. For example, if we know that a child struggles with recognizing an emotion, then that is what we teach them to practice. Or if we see that a child cannot control his emotions, we teach him ways to do so. In the end, we want to understand and teach others how to deal with feelings of anger, fear, and aggression in a good way.