Hi and welcome to yet another chapter on psychology and body language. In this third section we will talk about emotions.
No, we won’t spill our hearts and cry about it, but instead dissect them scientifically. I want you to have a better understanding of what happens in your brain and your body when you experience emotions.
I must warn you in advance that we’ll focus mostly on negative and more “basic” emotions. Not because love and happiness are less important to understand, but simply because scientists know much less about them.
Fear or anger have a more unique characteristics which makes them easier to understand and their particular purpose in our survival. Consequently, such emotions are easier to test and analyze than something more complex such as the experience of joy.
No, we haven't found the solution to love, yet
So first of all, we need to differentiate between emotions and feelings in the context of biological science - feelings are your conscious subjective experience of an emotion - it’s how you consciously grasp what’s happening to you.
Emotions on the other hand are physiological responses, which can be either positive or negative to a certain situation. They are structured patterns which we can divide into to 3 main aspects:
Behavioral Response - What sort of actions and expressions it involves. In simple words - it’s the nonverbal communication that accompanies that particular emotion; usually it’s the most intuitive aspect because it’s plain to see and familiar.
Autonomic Response - How your sympathetic or parasympathetic systems are activated.
Hormonal Response - Which hormones are secreted and which state they facilitate or maintain.
What’s important to understand is that these responses are combined and congruent - they supplement each other and as a whole create the image and the subjective feeling of the emotion.
Before we get to the actual emotions and their mechanism, we have to introduce 2 parts in the brain that play a critical role in determining how you react:
Don’t be afraid of the big names! I know they sound scary, but let me introduce these parts of the brain in a friendly way:
Both the Amygdala and the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (vmPFC from now on) have a variety of functions in our behavior and character, but most importantly, they organize the way we perceive, learn and regulate our emotions - which is our main subject here.
You can think of the Amygdala as your most neurotic and emotionally unstable friend - it’s attuned to threats (imagined or real) and other negative emotions like fear and anger. Some view it as part of the reptilian brain - a basic part that was developed early in our evolution and was essential to our early survival as a species.
Although it has a negative image - the amygdala is critical to our survival, because it:
All that in this tiny part of your brain
The other big player here is the vmPFC - which is more of your rational, stable and responsible guy. It’s involved in many processes of decision making and emotional regulation, and has a huge part to play in your moral sense and judgment.
Note: yes, you heard that right; your moral compass is mainly influenced by your emotions, not rational thought! As much as we like to think of ourselves as calculated and logical beings - most of our actions are driven by emotional impulses, and when they malfunction - so is our moral sense and sensitivity.
The interaction between the vmPFC and your Amygdala determines much of your attitudes and actions, and ideally it’s best to have a certain balance between them.
You want your alarm to go on when you see a threat (the amygdala’s job), but you also would like to apply some self restraint to figure out what is best course of action (the vmPFC job).
So, now that we know with whom we’re dealing with, it’s time to get to the emotions themselves:
As you can already imagine, the part that’s responsible for the organization of fear in your brain is the Amygdala. It collects input from the environment about possible threats, processes it and immediately pulls out the emergency kit to deal with the situation: the behavioral, hormonal and autonomic response.
When you feel fear - the sympathetic system is activated by the Amygdala and your body arms itself for full action. Your heart races, your pupils dilate, your muscles tighten, the energy reserves floods from the stores of your body and becomes available for immediate use, and all the unnecessary systems shut down - you become a super version of yourself, with a taxing price to your body.
We talked about the autonomous nervous system before, so you know it's independent, it doesn't asks you what you think it should do, but acts on its own accord.
This is especially evident when someone has a terror attack (scary name, I know). In this case the person suddenly experiences deep unknown and confusing fear, it really happens out of the blue. The cause to this deep fear is the full activation of the sympathetic system (the reason for its activation isn’t always justified- it can trigger after some strenuous activity for example).
Luckily, such experiences are over quite fast - it takes about half an hour for the sympathetic system to shut down and return everything to normal. So next time you experience extreme nervousness - have a comfort in the thought that it’ll pass soon on its own, (unless, of course, there is an actual death threatening scenario!).
The Hormonal Reaction
Norepinephrine, Epinephrine (Adrenaline) and Cortisol play a big part in preparing your body to action. I won’t elaborate here, because we already talked about them.
In animals it’s known as the Freeze Flight or Fight response - a limited selection of choices meant to keep you alive through the day.
When an animal experience fear, it will either take a defensive position, get ready to run away or will freeze and hope the danger will pass over.
But, when we look at the body language of humans, it’s not always that easy to see and comprehend fear or stress intuitively:
For example, a public speaker can have a fear response to his audience, not because he believes they will hurt him if he performs badly, but because he fears failure and the rejection of his listeners. His body doesn't really know the difference, and will assume a defensive position to guard his body, he can hide behind his stand, freeze in his place with his nose deep down in his notes or start to fidget as his adrenaline rush urges him to run away or fight.
We learned about the theory of learning in the previous article, now it’s time to mention that acquiring fears is partially the responsibility of the Amygdala.
When a new stimulus is accompanied by a natural threat (an inborn fear) - such as unexpected loud noises, large animals, heights or other predisposed fear = we biologically perceive the new stimulus as associated with the threat.
An example is the learned fear of elevators: on their own, elevators are not that scary, but if you had an experience being stuck in one, your helplessness and claustrophobia will kick in, and naturally you will associate such emotions with the elevator ride.
Come inside.. it's completely safe...
Note: It’s worth mentioning that sometimes the source of the conditioned fear is not so easily identified - you don’t always know or remember why you fear something. This makes the extinction of fear that much harder, and some clinical psychologists work exactly on that, like detectives of the unconscious they try to reveal the hidden source of the problem to help their patient.
Does that mean, that if your amygdala is damaged, you will have less fears?
Yes, it means exactly that! It won’t make you braver, mind you, instead you’ll be more apathetic. You may have lesser chance to get ulcer or a nervous breakdown in your life, but it also means that you can’t realize true danger and take means to avoid it, which naturally leads to more injuries and fatalities.
We also talked about extinction - the process of overcoming fear. When we look at the brain - we have a biological evidence for this process: The vmPFC suppresses the Amygdala! It sends inhibitory (slowing down) signals to the amygdala and regulate its response.
This is why acting bravely is not through the deficit of fear, instead it means having a stronger will to overcome it. People with bigger and well functioning vmPFC prove to have more restraint and courage because they can suppress their aversive behavior (elicited by the amygdala) better.