By Adrian Sparrow
The brain is an incredibly complex organ, piloting our bodies with physical and mental control, coordinating everything from breathing to emotional regulation. From a biological standpoint, emotions like fear and love help us to navigate the world safely and carry on the human race. But how do emotions actually work?
Emotions begin in the limbic system, a group of structures that’s also involved with processes like hormone regulation and memory, located deep inside the brain. Scientists don’t fully agree which structures belong in the group, but most agree that the limbic system includes the hypothalamus, which controls emotional responses as well as the autonomic nervous system; the hippocampus, which handles memory and spatial awareness, and the amygdala, which attaches emotional significance to events and memories.
The hypothalamus secretes hormones that are involved with mood and survival, like oxytocin, which controls behaviors and emotions like trust, recognition, and sexual arousal. This region is also involved in sleep, blood pressure, heart rate, thirst, hunger, and pain responses to keep the body in balance.
The hippocampus is a seahorse-shaped system located near the center of the brain. It is involved with long-term memory and declarative memory, where specific facts and events can be purposefully recalled. There is a link between people with chronic depression and shrunken hippocampi, which can account for common symptoms of depression such as vague or non-specific memory recall. Damage to this area of the brain can prevent the formation of new memories, and without the formation of short-term memories, a person may have trouble adapting to the world around them and need specialized assistance.
The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure, helps with fear and pleasure responses, and one of its functions is the combination of memory and emotion, as seen in Pavlov’s experiments in classical conditioning and fear conditioning (ring a bell?). It also helps with turning short-term memory into long-term retention. The amygdala is very important in the development of fear, including reflexive fear reactions, that help us navigate and survive dangerous situations.
Overall mood, behavior, memory, and emotions are closely tied together within the limbic system, which also regulates the physical responses related to emotion. When we believe there is danger, the amygdala is stimulated, then the hypothalamus. Adrenaline courses through our veins which increases the heart rate and prepares us for either confrontation or escape; fight-or-flight. When you fall in love, the hypothalamus first triggers a stress response before releasing other hormones like dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine is related to the body’s reward system, which can help to make love a desirable emotion, while oxytocin is associated with social bonding and promoting feelings of calm and contentment.
When an inappropriate emotional response causes issues, psychologists and psychiatrists can employ various treatments. Therapy can help the person take control over their own mood and thoughts, while medication can be used to regulate neurochemicals that communicate between the body and mind. Exercise, diet, and proper sleep can also help a person control their emotional responses.