The brain under positive & negative emotions
Strong negative emotions are based on preconceived judgements of whether or not something is a threat. These emotions can be powerful and even paralyze us at times. The brain has mechanisms to detect when something is a threat to us, causing several responses in the body to occur which allow us to deal with the threat. For this to work effectively however, it requires the limbic region of the brain.
The limbic region works through emotions. When faced with a possible threat, fear is the emotion that comes into play. Fear isn’t inherently bad because this emotion can help us make decisions that can save our life if there is really danger. However, what is considered dangerous is subjective depending on the individual and their experiences. These experiences create connections between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic area of the brain. This means that certain emotions become attached to a certain subject due to past experience. In reality, everything we learn and experience is saved as a new file in our neurons at the same time an emotion is being created or expressed (whether positive or negative). This is then filed away in the amygdala. This occurs for everything we learn- from changing a diaper, to math, or in our relationships. This cerebral function allows for easier retrieval of files and memories. So if we are having irrational thoughts, the negative emotion becomes attached to the subject/experience; or in the case of positive thoughts, positive feelings.
The part involved in this mechanism is the amygdala whose function is to process sensory information in terms of emotional significance and store emotional memory, including the action or response to take with that subject. As our senses receive stimuli the information is sent to the thalamus through nerves and the nuclei reticular formation (a number of neurons which interpret what we are seeing and hearing and project the information). The thalamus is responsible for relaying this sensory information to the amygdala. When negative thoughts arise, the sensory information arrives to the amygdala while bypasses the neocortex. The problem with this is that the connection between the neocortex and our conscious state is essential in order to think through things rationally.
Let’s see how this works under normal circumstances. For example, let’s assume we’re walking through a jungle when our eyes catch what appears to be the shape of a lion. Several regions simultaneously work together creating chemical changes in the brain, all in an attempt to find the best response to get us out of the dangerous situation. The areas involved are the amygdala, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and nuclei of the reticular formation. The stress mechanism is also turned on extremely quick in order to save our life. You see, in such situations there is no time to reason because by the time we do that we could end up being the lion’s dinner. Instead, the brain bypasses the neocortex area so a response is taken, whether to fight or run. Once the danger has passed everything in the brain and body go back to normal. The experience is stored away, with emotions attached to it, to be learned from and used later. Undoubtedly, there will be fear attached to this event.
Although fear may initially arise during a new event, constant fears are learned. However, just as fear is learned, it can also be unlearned. The areas involved in this are: the amygdala (where the emotional part of fear is taking place), the hippocampus (involved with learning- fear has to be learned), and the Prefrontal neocortex. If connection with the limbic area is affected by chronic stress, unlearning fear is impossible.
All fears are derived from a subjective perceived sensory stimulus caught by our eyes, ears, or body sensory cells. The information on this potential threat is sent by nerves to several nuclei parts of the brain. Neurons in these nuclei contain information codes which determine whether or not these areas fire off, which initiates a response. This is processed by chemicals made by brain cells. Whether or not the threat is real, these reactions cause an increased need for glucose in the brain and body. Repeatedly thinking about the subject of concern causes consistent and increasing feelings of fear, which can be paralyzing and cause panic in the individual. This strengthens our perceived notions and reality of the fear.
The brain, however, can unlearn fear through the neocortex. Rational and analytical thinking keeps the amygdala from controlling actions and behaviors. This also works for obsessive compulsive disorders, such as cleaning all the time due to fear of getting sick. This can apply to any fear, however. Whether it be fear of losing a spouse, a job, power or control, our image, etc. Sadly in today’s world, we often react to non-threatening situations in a negative way, leading to chronic stress. If we really think about it, all stress comes from fears we have. We become stressed from work because we fear our boss will fire us or people won’t like us, or we won’t complete the project on time, etc.
Repeated negative thoughts create a learned fear emotion that blocks the connection between the neocortex and limbic area. This means we have a hard time thinking things through rationally. This affects the way we see reality, creating increased fears and activating certain regions of the brain. In these circumstances it’s easy to become critical of others and have negative emotions that cause pain and shame.
On the other hand, emotions are also involved when we cultivate a positive attitude. In this case however, the neocortex influences and separates judgement from real and unreal threats when we experience a new event. It utilizes past experiences which have been reconciled, allowing us to consider various options and use reason. Even when difficult situations present themselves, this connection allows our minds to reconcile these new events. Positive thoughts create new synapses in neuron cells away from fear memories in the amygdala. This increases grey matter through dendrites connection between the frontal cortex and the limbic area which changes the structure and molecules in all regions of our brain. This increases balance and keeps homeostasis and equilibrium in our brain and entire body. Besides that, an area of our brain produces certain chemicals that is projected through a series of nuclei in the brain, when released to our entire brain and body, produce feelings of happiness, peace, and satisfaction.
The way we respond as we make our decisions to follow impressions from our neocortex is related to morals and values. When we disregard these impressions, it leads to chronic stress and negative emotions such as pain, shame, sadness, resentment, anger, and anxiety.
Structure and molecular changes due to positive emotions take place based on our experiences, thoughts, and responses to previous episodes, which allow us to respond to any particular event in a better and positive way.
Being able to make decisions from various options all depends on our thoughts and learned fears. Considering options is a work the neocortex will do to ensure that we choose what will resolve the event as soon as possible to avoid continuous stress and crisis. This process involves learning, problem solving, and emotions.
Let’s look at one last example. If we confront a new difficult event with a family member, some emotions arise and an immediate judgement of said event takes place in the brain. Several regions in the brain work together through this process. The neocortex looks through thousands of files of information regarding morals, ethics, empathy, compassion, and our own weaknesses, in addition to the pleasant moments with our family member. With all this information the neocortex determines the best course of action. However, this region contains information on moral agency (our ability to choose our actions) so it won’t impose a decision. This has to be done in the limbic area where we are conscious. If we made a correct choice we are rewarded with positive emotions and we learn from the event. If we chose incorrectly, negative emotions follow and stress and unhappiness increase until we reconcile the event. Remember, our bodies are affected with health or sickness due to the structural and molecular changes in our brain. Choose health.