The Biology of Emotions


While psychological treatment methods of emotion research continue to be ongoing, various prevailing points are emerging which manage to promote the views that many psychologists have long supported. These evolving theories are not unexpected because the field is continuously learning how feelings affect perception, reasoning, problem solving abilities and the ways in which people adapt to life events. The current research offers the biological explanations for the health psychology position; these human emotions are biological, psychological and sociological in nature.

 The History of Emotions

Past historical accounts of emotions have been discourteous and avoidant. The contemporary neuroscience on emotions affirms that earlier assumptions were wrong, and in these modern times science believes that emotions are not trivial indulgences or invaders that interfere with logical thinking, but they are prime organizing methods where awareness, understanding, and memory are established. If the message people sense in a situation fails to evoke an emotional reaction, it will also fail to be regarded as significant and will have little likelihood of being selected into long-term memory. Investigations are also confirming that for someone to learn new ways of adapting they must possess a desire about what they are attempting to learn. As this book on emotions explains joy, curiosity, love, greed, surprise, anger, sadness and pride are not ephemeral or baffling states but are motivators that nudge people to travel in ways that assist with thriving and surviving.

by decar66 flickr

by decar66 flickr

Emotions were perceived as elements of man that contribute to people being unreasonable and confused, or they were immoral self-indulgences from which they must purify themselves if they did not want to be driven into performing sinful deeds. The notion that emotion was a sin that needed to be purged through absolution and confession has its roots in the teachings of Plato, and the theory was supported 600 years later for the church by St. Augustine. Farther along in time, Rene Descartes, known as being the founding father of modern philosophy, in the 17th century declared “I think, therefore, I am.”  His published book “Discourse on Method of Thought” was so compelling that it has impacted every philosopher since, and drafted the case that human sensations and emotions interrupted the practice of creating rational, orderly thinking. Moving forward into the 20th century, the judgment of the behaviorist school of psychology in its attempts to regulate human behavior through punishment and reward thought the drab realm of emotions were insignificant in the training process. By not realizing that emotions are valuable to psychological adaptations, some have turned psychiatric practices into shallow, mechanical districts lacking the very emotional care required to create the kinds of reasoning and coping skills the profession so desperately wants to improve. Additionally, the mental health professions have not fully addressed the important relationship between stimulating an emotionally positive experience and how this experience inter-relates to overall emotional and physical health.

Today, neuro-scientific research points to the outcome that without emotion, there is no long-term memory development and there is a mind, body, health relationship. The information tracked by the brain that has emotional significance is what survives so people can focus, organize, and retain the information. Study after study verifies that the greater emotional expression an experience stimulates, the easier it is to remember. Joseph LeDoux, the pioneering leader in defining emotional circuitry, states, “Emotions, in short, amplify memory”.  Without the importance of recognizing feelings and incoming information, the world would be a colorless, dull, and unmemorable place. The significant theories of emotions can be classified into three central fields: neurological, physiological, and cognitive. Neurological doctrines assert that activities within the brain direct emotional responses. Physiological principles suggest that responses within the body have a direct link to emotions.  Lastly, cognitive theories maintain the belief that ideas and other thinking processes perform vital functions in the production of feeling states.

The Biological Regulators of Emotions   

The immune and endocrine systems aid in processing emotions, two integral brain systems share in the regulating duty (Edelman, 2001).

  1. The cerebral cortex governs higher functions and manages communications with the outside world.
  2.  The brain stem which is located at the base of the brain plus the limbic system formations encompassing it directs people internally, focusing on the emotional, nurturing and survival needs. The brain stem also monitors spontaneous activity, such as heart rate. 

The Cerebral Cortex

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The cerebral cortex fills 85 percent of the brain’s size and is a large covering of neural tissue that is deeply enveloped around the limbic system. It is arranged into countless amounts of profoundly interconnected and outwardly directed neural interfaces that react in milliseconds to different space-time demands. This system stimulates behavioral replies, offers rational decisions along with collecting, classifying and deciphering sensory data. When observed from the top, the cortex separates into right and left hemispheres along a path that proceeds straight backward from the nose. An abridged representation of duties of the two hemispheres implies that they concentrate on various viewpoints of an object or experience. The right hemisphere integrates the background data (the jungle) and the left hemisphere analyzes the foreground data (a tree in the jungle).

While investigations are not precise on the roles the hemispheres play in emotion, a few common patterns are obvious (Corballis, 1991). The right hemisphere appears to represent processing the emotional content of gestures, faces, speech intonation and volume associated with how something is communicated, while the left hemisphere processes the actual content of language or what is spoken. The right hemisphere also processes information that point to withdrawal reactions, for instance, fear and revulsion whereas the left hemisphere processes the aspects of emotion that point to advancing reactions like laughter and joy. Tomasi1 and Dardo (2011) have implied that the average male brain seems to follow a left design of hemisphere specialization; however, the average female brain may disperse more emotional processing across the two hemispheres. If accurate, these organizational variations may serve to clarify regularly seen gender discrepancies.

The Limbic System and Brain Stem

The limbic system and brain stem react slower, from seconds to months as it governs fundamental body functions, cycles, and defenses that broadly connect to organs and systems. The reticular formation at the tip of the brain stem integrates the volume, and kind of incoming sensory data into a common level of awareness. The limbic system is formed from many small interconnected networks and is the brain’s primary manager of emotion that plays a significant role in processing memory. This system may reveal why emotion is a significant element in memory formation as it is strong enough to reverse both rational thinking and innate brain stem reply patterns, meaning people tend to follow their emotions (Rolls, 2013).

The limbic systems structures that process memory and emotion are the amygdala, the hippocampus, the thalamus and the hypothalamus. The amygdala is the key limbic system structure implicated in processing the emotional content of memory and behavior. It is composed of two little almond-shaped structures that link the sensory-motor systems and autonomic nervous system, which governs survival faculties such as breathing and heart rate. The amygdala also communicates with nearly all other brain regions. Its primary responsibility is to refine and translate advanced incoming sensory data in connection with survival and emotional demands, and then assists in launching relevant actions. Consequently, the amygdala affects both early sensory processing and higher levels of cognition. For instance, on a cold day the amygdala may disregard the feel of a warm coat, but reacts to one that does not have a zipper.

The brain’s amygdala and connecting hippocampus can temper the subjective and objective intensity of the memory. This structure processes the personal feelings people associate with the experience, and the hippocampus processes the objective conditions such as area, time, environment and activities that described the experience. The hippocampus joins the amygdala which converts significant short-term events into long-term declarative recollections that are then saved in the cortex. Memories created during a particular emotional state have a tendency to be effortlessly remembered during a related emotional state, at a later date in time (Thayer, 1989; Schimmack & Reisenzein, 2002). For instance, during a dispute, people can quickly recall comparable earlier arguments that happened many years ago. This explains why simulations and role-playing exercises heighten learning since they attach memories to emotional connections which will associate and be utilized at a later date. The limbic system affects the collection and organization of events that the brain stores in two classes of long-term memory: Procedural memories are unconsciously processed skills, such as talking and walking, and declarative memories which are the conscious recall of facts, such as dates and locations.

The walnut-size thalamus and joining pea-size hypothalamus are two other major limbic system structures that further regulate emotional and physical safety. The thalamus is the brain’s first relay station for incoming sensory data and it notifies the rest of the brain about what is transpiring in someone’s environment. The thalamus has primary bonds to the amygdala and authorizes it to broadcast an immediate, but factually restricted statement of a possible threat. This response can trigger a fast, emotionally packed, but possibly also life-saving response before people thoroughly understand what is occurring. It is this system of parts that often carries many volatile emotional outbursts during a typical day. The hypothalamus watches the internal regulatory systems, telling the brain what is occurring inside the body. When the brain has no resolution to a dangerous condition, the hypothalamus can initiate a fight-flight stress reply through its pituitary gland connections that involve the endocrine system. Kandel and Kandel (1994) infer that this process serves as an explanation for repressed memories related to trauma and abuse. The fearfulness related to a traumatic event can begin the release of substances such as neurotransmitters like noradrenaline that increase the attachments in the brain processing the emotional recollection of the experience. Conversely, the painfulness of the event can lead to the discharge of opiate endorphins that reduce connections processing the conscious recollection of the factual conditions surrounding the incident. Consequently, the sufferer has a tendency to shun anything that triggers the fearful emotion, but often does not consciously know why. Many years following a mixture of internal and external factors, a similar place, the behavior of someone, or a feeling may cause the powerful emotional memory to trigger the recollection of the limited factual memory of the initial abuse.

Peptides are carriers of feelings states

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Throughout antiquity, people have held the belief that there is a disconnection between the mind, body and brain. The brain monitors body functions and the body produces maintenance duties for the brain. Scientists at this time believe that there is a unified mind-body-brain arrangement. The emotional operation that predominantly is in the brain, endocrine and immune systems is a biochemical process that affects all organs. The emotions and thoughts are the cement that unites the body and brain, and peptide particles are the bodily demonstration of this process.

This work explains that peptide particles or molecules are the carriers which lead to the emotional operation. Researchers identify a peptide molecule as being a chain of amino acids which is smaller than a protein and there are more than sixty kinds implicated in feeling states. Although it is not understood how these molecules offer the data. Peptide productions within the body or brain are named hormones and neuropeptides, and if similarly fashioned molecules are produced outside the body, they are described as being medications. To temper the broad spectrum of feelings such as pleasure and pain, peptides move throughout the body via neural tracks, the circulatory system, and respiratory passages. They intensely influence the choices people make within the continuum of emotionally loaded advancing and withdrawing behaviors, such as to agree-disagree, and marry-divorce, drink-urinate, fight-run. Consequently the shifts in the body’s levels of certain molecules indicate emotional response, what people do, when people do it, and how much determination people employ. At the cellular level, peptides manufactured within one cell fasten to receptors on the surface of another, sparking increased or decreased cellular reactions. If this happens in huge groups of cells, it can influence feeling or emotional states. Cell division and protein synthesis are two such activities which are profoundly implicated in the emotionally charged body alterations that occur during puberty (Moyers, 1992). A peptide’s communication can vary in different areas of the body, just as a knife can be used in various ways to cut meat. In this fashion peptides are much the same as medications or drugs. For instance, alcohol can stimulate or sedate, depending on one’s emotional state and the quantity of consumption.

StressNearly all modern day stress occurs from emotional disturbances and many responses frequently are maladaptive. For illustration, a young child protests going to bed. The angry parents’ stress system inappropriately reacts by delivering clotting factors into the blood, raising cholesterol levels, lowering the defenses of the immune system, tenses muscles, and increases blood pressure, along with many other effects. This parental response only makes sense if the rebellious child is also advancing with a rifle. People pay a huge cost for constant emotional tension, physically and emotionally. Even though low levels of cortisol create the euphoria that people feel when they are in charge, high levels triggered by the stress reply can produce depression and prolonged stress can point to problems associated with circulatory, endocrine, digestive and immune disorders. Chronic high cortisol levels can also damage hippocampal neurons correlated with learning and memory and short-term stress-related elevation of cortisol in the hippocampus can inhibit the ability to discriminate between details of a memorable experience (Vincent, 1990; Gazzaniga, 1989). Consequently, stressful life conditions decrease ones’ capacity to live a physically and emotionally healthy life.

On the positive side meet your happy chemicals because the endorphins are a form of an opiate peptide that moderate emotions along the pain-pleasure spectrum as they decrease intense pain and increase euphoria. Endorphin levels can be raised by exercise, by positive social connections, music, meditation and many other activities that cause people to feel good about themselves, and the circumstances in which they live (Levinthal, 1988). A pleasant environment that promotes healthy activities will give birth to internal chemical reactions, which will help people discover how to successfully solve challenges in life, such as chronic pain management.

Research reveals that the emotional system is a complicated, broadly dispersed, and error-prone arrangement that describes a person’s fundamental personality early in life that is very resistant to change. Trauma is a fact of life and there are larger amounts of neural fibers that protrude from the brain’s emotional center into the rational center than the reverse, makes emotion a more influential determinant of behavior than the brain’s rational methods. For instance, buying a lottery ticket is an emotional, not a rational choice, as the chances of winning are extremely low.

Prevention, Physical Health and Health Psychology

The psychiatry/psychology professions stress the importance of treating the whole person, but treatments tend to concentrate on measurable objective points. The health professionals measure appetite, sleep patterns, hallucinations, eating habits, not emotional health or how life stressors effect symptom development. If the resources get tight administration cuts mental health services like emotional health assessments, therapy referrals, payment for services, and psychiatric research. We know emotion is important in psychology and psychiatry as it drives awareness, which in turn urges learning, coping and memory. However, because many fields do not fully understand the emotional process, they do not recognize precisely how to regulate it or apply it to clinical work beyond explaining too much or too little emotion as being problematic. Psychiatry has rarely incorporated the effects of emotional experiences people have in life comfortably into their treatments and American society is prime for change.

by Liber the poet Flickr

by Liber the poet Flickr

Emotions just exist, people cannot change them easily, they are acquired differently than the way people master practical skills and neglecting them can create difficulties in life.  People can discover how and when to use logical thought to disregard feeling states or at least postpone expression until a situation is rationally evaluated. Everyone can recall earlier disturbances that anger them because of not being permitted to openly verbalize feelings after receiving a judgment. Health psychologists and other health professionals should begin to promote practices of self-control and help them live beyond feelings to assist in maintaining a nonjudgmental view encouraging a non-disruptive release of emotion that frequently occurs before reason.

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