Emotions and The Brain
How we feel and react to different situations is hugely impacted by our emotions. Our memories are partly made of our emotions too. For example, if you think back to watching a horror movie, you will likely remember feeling scared. Or to your 18th birthday, where you associate your memories with joy and excitement. However, in some cases, we do not fully understand how we feel, because our emotions are complex. Not all moments can be categorised into separate emotions, because in reality, our emotions interconnect. This complexity of emotions has led psychologists and neurologists to study emotions in depth, to decode how they impact our brain health. Through numerous studies of the brain, scientsts have come to the conclusion that we have six core emotions: happiness, fear, sadness, disgust, anger, and surprise. All other emotions as said to derive from these core six.
Fear is the emotion closely associated with the flight or fight response. It is a combination of our intuition or ‘gut’ feeling, and involves primitive survival instincts. Looking at our brain, fear activates the amygdala and hypothalamus, which leads to the secretion of hormones from glands, resulting in the butterfly feeling in the stomach.
Have you ever been in an argument, and forgotten what you wanted to say? Thats because of anger. Like fear, anger also activates the amygdala and hypothalamus. However, the hormones produced by this activation are different in the presence of anger, and so too are the outcomes. The increase of the specific hormone, cortisol, impacts two key regions in the brain: the peripheral cortex and hippocampus. In the peripheral cortex, cortisol causes a decrease in the number of neurons, which hinders your judgment. In the hippocampus, the same affect results in the inhibition of memory formation, and a debilitated short-term memory.
Likely, everyone has heard of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that makes us feel happy. Secretion of this neurotransmitter results in feelings of joy, and simple things like taking a walk or smiling can increase dopamine levels. Even more interesting for mental health, low dopamine levels have been associated with depression, which gives more insight into how our emotions impact the brain and mental health.
Focusing on mental health, gratitude is an emotion said to benefit our mental state. When we feel thankful and gratuitous towards someone, it activates the area of the brain associated with pleasure, and responsible for regulating emotions. This results in stress relief and allows you to be more calm, which is not only beneficial for overall mental health, but particularly helpful for those who are anxious or have anxiety symptoms. Particular research focused on gratitude and depression, found that practising gratitude can rewire brain function of those suffering from depression.
We have covered how our emotions connect with our brain, and how certain emotions can help with mental health. However, more research in this area is required to better understand how emotions like gratitude, can help with depression. To do so, scientists ultimately need to study and observe brain activity through clinical trials, which rely on volunteers. Clinical trials are vital for learning more about the brain,and human body.
To find out more about clinical trials, click here.