How does the brain create emotions?

Imagine opening the kitchen cupboard and a mouse jumps out. You might instinctively leap back to safety, perceiving the unexpected furry creature as a threat. Your heart might start pounding. You might even scream. You’d be feeling fear.

Or maybe you’re having coffee with a close friend. You smile and laugh as you chat. Your body relaxes into your chair, and you fail to notice the passing time. You’re experiencing joy.

We all know what it means to feel emotion – we know there are both physical and mental components, whether that’s jumping when we see a mouse or feeling content when we’re with people we love. Even though we might feel shivers down our spine or butterflies in our stomach, we can’t pinpoint emotions within the body. But equally, we know they’re not all in the mind.

So where do these emotions come from?

In fact, the quick flash of thoughts and feelings masks just how much work the brain is doing when you experience an emotion, interpreting circumstances and bodily signals, and influencing how you feel and respond. In this article, we take a closer look at how the brain processes emotions.

What causes emotions?

Throughout history, psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers have put forward many different explanations for how emotions are created.

(Spoiler alert: they still don’t fully agree!)

In the early days of psychology, it was popular to think that emotions are completely dependent on how the body responds to an event. For example, you see a mouse, you tremble and therefore you feel afraid. But to others, this seemed a little counterintuitive: we don’t feel fear because we are trembling, we tremble because we are afraid. And what’s more, sometimes we tremble because we are cold!

These psychologists believed that external events lead to both a physical and mental reaction, and so they started to explore the idea that emotions are regulated by a specific area of the brain.

Later on, psychologists began to add individual meaning into the mix, building on earlier theories about physical reactions and looking at how our individual thought processes affect our emotional experience. This has evolved into cognitive models of emotion, which provide a fuller picture of how our individual experiences, context and beliefs all play into our emotional responses.

So smiling is good for you! And more recently, the facial-feedback theory suggests that we can improve our mood just by mimicking the facial expressions associated with positive emotions.

How the brain processes emotions.

While there is still a lot of debate about what causes emotions and whether they are experienced in the same way by different people and cultures, we do know which parts of the brain are active during this process.

Researchers believe that emotions are affected by the limbic system – which includes the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus and various networks and neurotransmitters. Each of these parts plays a different role in linking our emotions and memories, prompting mood-appropriate behaviour and initiating physical responses.

When the brain receives signals about what’s going on around us, it uses this system as a basis to guide our emotional reaction.

So while we might like to see ourselves as being in control of our thoughts and behaviour, more often than not, we’re actually at the mercy of our emotions. But these only represent our brain’s best attempt to make sense of the world around us.

The brain draws on our past experiences to interpret what we’re experiencing now, and creates what it thinks is an appropriate emotional response. This sounds like an instinctive or automatic process, but what’s amazing is that we do have some control over it, and certainly over how we behave. Because of how our thought processes plays into the creation of emotions, we can try to reframe the way we think about things to in a positive light, train our mind to respond differently to every day stressors, and boost our emotional health.

Caring for your emotional health

Our emotions play a vital role in influencing how we think and behave, which affects our enjoyment of life and our overall health and well being. This means that caring for our emotional health is essential if we are to live life to our fullest potential.

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