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Emotions and the Brain

Posted by Anna-Lisa Mackey, PATHS Program CEO on Dec 14, 2021 6:18:45 PM
Anna-Lisa Mackey, PATHS Program CEO

As far back as Plato, philosophers have debated the brain’s relationship to the body. Scientists have studied the brain for decades, trying to unlock its secrets. New scientific research may open the door to how the brain processes emotions.  

Concept of human intelligence with human brain on blue backgroundThe human brain is a remarkable and complex organ. It acts as the air traffic control center for the human body, controlling thought, memory, emotion, touch, motor skills, vision, breathing, temperature, and hunger—and much more

A Different Way of Thinking About Emotions

The “classical” view of emotion was born in the 19th century, when the study of the brain shifted from philosophy to science. The classical theory on emotion states that certain brain regions perform specific functions and are responsible for our emotional life (i.e., Amygdala and prefrontal cortex).

The “constructionist” view of emotion offers another theory. The brain uses the information from the body, past experiences, and current situations to construct our view of the world and our inner lives. 

Science constantly adds new information to “what we know” about the brain and emotions. In a 2017 opinion blog post, Tania Lombrozo, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, explains why science is always changing, “... the body of scientific knowledge is continually evolving. Scientists don’t simply add more facts to our scientific repository; they question new evidence as it comes in, and they repeatedly reexamine prior conclusions. That means that the body of scientific knowledge isn’t just growing, it’s also changing.”

This post offers a brief outline of the constructionist theory of the mind and how it creates emotion.

Concepts, Perception, and Predicting EmotionsAngry manager looking to wall with drawn overloaded brain concept

In the constructionist theory, emotions do not have a specific location in the brain from which they are generated. These connections take place across the brain, as shown in information from fMRI machines. Research attributes it to the efficient use of energy. It is more efficient for the brain to use “many sets of neurons to produce the same outcome” and that “any single neuron can contribute to more than one outcome” (How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barret). 

From the moment the brain perceives sensations from the body, it begins to attempt to categorize the information into categories called concepts. The entire purpose of the brain is to help maintain the body (body budget) and keep it in balance—not too cold, not too hot, not too hungry, not too thirsty. Also referred to as allostasis, keeping your body budget balanced is key to regulating emotions.

The brain’s information from the body is called interoception, which is information from the senses that the brain interprets into concepts. Language is an important part of concept formation, which represents past experiences. As more concepts form, the brain begins to predict based on the interoceptive information and the context or situation in which you find yourself.

These concepts are how the brain makes meaning of all the sensations and input it receives. Sometimes, the prediction of meaning is an emotion like happy, sad, or mad. Unlike the classical theory, the constructionist theory of emotions believes that emotions do not have markers or specific, recognizable, universal facial features.

Take the experience of happy for instance. Sometimes we smile, sometimes we cry, sometimes we show nothing on our face to indicate to others how we feel. When we say we are happy, we are not experiencing all the kinds of happiness that one can experience. We are experiencing one example of happy, or an instance of the emotion happy. To say that happy is experienced in only one way is, by instinct, incorrect because we have felt “happy” in many different situations. The brain is predicting the sort of “happy” concept that it thinks is appropriate at this moment.

And, it does it so rapidly that we do not perceive this guessing game at work.

Grow Your brain's "Concept Bank Account"
Man mood, behavior changes, swings. Collage young man expressing different emotions, showing facial expressions, feelings on colorful backgrounds. Human life perception, body language, gestures.

We can influence this predictive process somewhat by building up the number of concepts your brain can access. The brain is constantly receiving and evaluating information and making predictions. 

Here are some ways to influence emotional experiences:
  1. Improve our understanding of instances of emotion and develop a richer emotional vocabulary. Learn new words because language is the foundation of concepts. The more concepts you have, the more flexible and creative your brain can be with its predictions and accuracy. Emotional granularity is key to creating more distinct concepts.
  2. Keep your body in good shape by getting enough rest, exercise, and proper nutrition. Remember, the brain is using its interoceptive network to predict emotion. If the information it gets from the body is negative, this impacts its predictive concepts of emotion.
  3. Human touch is essential.
  4. Physical space impacts the body budget. Spend time where you feel peaceful and calm.
  5. Reflect on why you might have experienced an instant of emotion. To what concept might it relate? Can you reframe the experience?
  6. Focus on the positives and cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
  7. Avoid rumination. Every time you think about a situation, it creates another instance that your brain might use to predict.
  8. Engage in experiences now that you want to construct again in the future.

These tips can help you even if you ascribe to the classical view of emotions. As I mentioned at the start of this post, the science of emotions is continually evolving as researchers continue to unlock the mysteries of the human brain. 

Topics: Social and emotional learning, middle school, Emozi® Middle School, self-management, Social Emotional Us, Self-Care, self-regulation