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BRAIN AND EMOTION: How Our Brain Works to Make Us Feel

Updated: Sep 19, 2020

Written by - Arhama Shams Sheikh | Edited by - Atri Das

"The more you learn the biology behind your every action, emotion and behaviour, the better it becomes at accepting others the way they are." - Abhijit Naskar

The brain as we know is a highly complex organ of the body. Its main function is to control and coordinate all kinds of activities, from the movement of one’s fingers to the regulation of heart, muscles and even our pupils which require both voluntary as well as involuntary co-ordinations. Apart from the more apparent activities, brain is also largely responsible for our emotions.


It is responsible for the perception and evaluation of situations that lead to the experience of emotional states.

Emotions play a central role in human experience. Over time, methods for manipulating emotion have become increasingly refined and techniques for making sense of the underlying neuro-biology have become ever more powerful and precise, enabling new insights into the organization of emotions in the brain. Yet recent years have witnessed a remarkably vigorous debate about the nature and origins of emotion, with leading scientists raising compelling concerns about the canon of facts and principles that has inspired and guided the field for the past quarter century.

If a situation results in an emotional state, the brain controls the somatic and autonomic patterns of activity characteristic of emotions. It directs the behaviour driven by the emotional state and is necessary for the emotional feelings we encounter.

Here, we consider ways in which recent neuro-imaging research informs this dialogue. By focusing attention on the most important outstanding questions about the nature of emotion and the architecture of the emotional brain, we hope to stimulate the kinds of work that will be required to move the field forward. Addressing these questions is critical, not just for understanding the mind, but also for elucidating the root causes of many of its disorders.The complex psycho-physiological experience of an individual is slated through the dynamic interaction between biochemical (internal) and environmental (external) influences. Scientists like and biologists have been relentlessly been working towards discovering the biology behind emotions, precisely the brain areas responsible for its experience.


There is an ongoing research to ascertain the precise locations in the brain attributed for causing emotions. The studies conducted so far revealed the origins of some common emotions such as fear, anger, happiness and love.

I. The Limbic System

is one area in the brain which is very commonly associated emotions. A group of interconnected structures buried deep within the brain, they are responsible for categorizing pleasant or unpleasant mental states.

Parts of the limbic system generally said to play a key function in emotions are:

A. Hypothalamus

B. Amygdala

C. Hippocampus

D. Limbic cortex

A. The hypothalamus plays a role in the activation of the sympathetic wing of the autonomic nervous system.

- It is the center for homeostasis – it helps maintain an optimal level of functioning in the body.

- When an individual encounters stressors or a fearful situation, the amygdala stimulates the hypothalamus which initiates the flight or fight response.mIt signals the ‘master’ or pituitary gland to trigger the adrenal glands which release hormones like cortisol and epinephrine for immediate flight or fight reaction to counter the stressor.

- This gives rise to a chain of physiological changes such as an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, elevated breathing etc.

- Frustration such as traffic jams leads to anger and tends to evoke the above described bodily reactions.

- Hypothalamus seems to be strangely connected to the emotion of love. People sometimes experience intense anxiety and nervousness when meeting their romantic partners, at least in the beginning.

- The gradual increment in these feelings trigger the release of hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine and vasopressin.

B. The amygdala is an almond shaped structure often referred to as the alarm system of the brain.

- It plays a key role in the consolidation of emotionally laden memories.

- Memories that have strong emotional content in them are strengthened and stored well.

- In addition to this, the amygdala plays a significant role in the formation of new memories especially those related to fear. Fearful memories tend to be formed through Pavlovian conditioning.

- The brain tends to form an association between fear producing situations and feelings of fear.

- The amygdala works in coordination with the endocrine and the autonomic nervous system to interpret experienced emotions.

- The amygdala plays a critical role in the emotional appraisal and identification of situations as well as in the analysis of potential dangers. It is the principal area associated with fear reactions “fight or flight” responses. When it perceives a danger, be it external (running late for a meeting) or internal (recalling an unpleasant experience) – the amygdala sends an urgent alarm to the hypothalamus and other brain areas. The hypothalamus gets activated and initiates the fight or flight response which further leads to the secretion of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline from the adrenal glands.

- Individuals with brain damage to the amygdala are unable to respond adequately in dangerous situations.

- Anger is another emotion stimulated by the amygdala. It is in part, also controlled by some areas of the pre-frontal cortex where damage to this region has been found to be associated with the inability to control anger and aggression.

C. The hippocampus is sea-horse shaped region that facilitates the storage and learning of important emotional events.

- The context of the incident is stored in the form of visuo-spatial memory such as an affectionate glance from a loved on or the look of an angry friend.

- This area is responsible for the development of personal memory of events. In addition, it also plays a role in spatial orientation and navigation.

- The hippocampus is able to recognise both the danger and the context of the situation and works in connection with the amygdala.

- It is also involved in the consolidation of memory.

D. The limbic cortex is activated with an overall sense of well-being and satisfaction –

a state of happiness accompanied by positive thoughts and feelings.

II. Other Brain Areas

Other than the limbic system, there are other brain areas involved in the processing and evaluation of emotions. The RAS or reticular activating system – a network of neurons fundamentally responsible for wakefulness, alertness and consciousness.

It is said to initially stimulate the cortex and maintain its wakefulness for sensory impulses and emotion to effectively interpreted. ACC or anterior cingulate cortex is stimulated when attention is required for emotionally relevant stimuli or when it is needed for sustaining vital feelings. Insula is associated with the experience of deeper emotional states. It also has the ability to sense primary emotions such as love, anger, sadness and fear.

Study of brain regions involved in emotional states are currently in the process. The locations outlined above are believed to play a significant role in the perception and appraisal of basic emotions. With technological advancement, scientists and psycho-biologists will hopefully unearth the origins of more complex emotions.


1. Hall, John E. Guyton, Arthur C. (2011) Guyton and Hall textbook of medical physiology/ Philadelphia, PA: Saunders/Elsevier.

2. Kolb, B., & Whishaw, I. Q. (2003). Fundamentals of human neuropsychology (5th ed.). Worth Publishers.

3. Pinel, J. P. J. (2014). Biopsychology. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

4. Boundless. (n.d.). Boundless Psychology.

5. Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Neurotransmitters and emotion. (n.d.).

6. Hanson, R. (2018, August 04). Peace of Mind: Emotions, the Limbic System, and Equanimity.

7. Seladi-Schulman, J. (2028, December 01). What Part of the Brain Controls Emotions? Fear, Happiness, Anger, Love.

8. <a href=''>Icon photo created by freepik</a>

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