A brain is heavily involved in our emotions and helps with everything from recognizing our emotions to feeling our emotions and even attaching emotions to our memories! Emotions are not simple, so there are many brain structures that are active when we are feeling emotions. Some areas of the brain are activated only with specific emotions, whereas other brain structures are important for all emotions. Read below to find out how the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and cerebral cortex are involved in emotions.
The amygdala is probably the most important brain structure for emotions. It is basically our brain's emotional response center; it recognizes things in our environment that could cause an emotional response and then helps to coordinate that response with other areas of our brain and body. While the amygdala does this for all emotions in general, it is especially important for when we are feeling angry or scared.
Our amygdala is actually so powerful at processing emotions like anger and fear that it may cause an aggressive or scared response before the rest of our bain realizes what is happening. That is why it can be so easy to get angry without even thinking or why we often react to a scary situation before we fully understand what is happening.
The hippocampus plays an important role in our memory. We have several types of memory, but one very important type is our episodic memory. Episodic memory is memory about our lives. When we retrieve an episodic memory, it is almost like we are turning on a tv EPISODE of a past event in our life. For example, can you remember what activities you did yesterday? We can form episodic memories of very recent experiences and we can remember events from a long time ago. I still remember my first day of grade three... 15 years ago!!
Try remembering an episodic memory, like your last birthday. Do you feel any emotions thinking about this memory? That is because our hippocampus attaches emotions to our episodic memories. The hippocampus is right beside the amygdala, which helps the two structures work together to help us form emotional memories.
Have you ever noticed that our body feels different when we experience big emotions? Next time you are feeling especially happy, scan through your body to see what it's feeling. Our hypothalamus regulates our bodies response when we are experiencing emotions. For example, if we are really excited our heart rate might increase. Our hypothalamus responds to this increase in heart rate and helps us slow down our heart rate once we are done feeling excited.
When we feel an emotion, we also think about that emotion. Our emotions are very tied to our thoughts, which means that the cerebral cortex is a very important brain structure for our emotional processes. Different parts of our cerebral cortex are active depending on which emotion we are feeling.
Fun Fact: Researchers have different tools for taking photos of the brain. When researchers are studying emotions, they will take pictures of a persons brain while they are feeling different emotions (like sad, happy, scared, etc). The photos show which areas of the brain are involved in particular emotions.
- The amygdala coordinates our emotional responses.
- The amygdala is important for fear and anger.
- The hippocampus attaches emotions to some of our memories (episodic memories).
- The hypothalamus regulates our bodies response to emotions.
- The cerebral cortex is important for thinking about emotions.
Kolb, B., Whishaw, I. Q., Campbell Teskey, G. (2000). An introduction to brain and behaviour (6th ed.). Worth Publishers.
Queensland Brain Institute. (n.d.). The limbic system. The University of Queensland, Australia. Retrieved September 26, 2020, from https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain/brain-anatomy/limbic-system
Uttley, C. (2011, August 8). 5 ways your brain influences your emotions. HowStuffWorks. Retrieved September 26, 2020, from https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/5-ways-your-brain-influences-your-emotions.htm/
Try these activities to go along with what you've learned: