Picture this. You see your ex, and suddenly your heart starts beating fast. You start sweating and your hands get clammy. This knee-jerk reaction is not ideal; you would prefer to keep things calm and collected when you say hello. After a minute of talking yourself down, you do become calmer. What happened there? Why did your brain process emotions "without" you?
The answer is not completely clear, to be honest. Psychologists have undergone years of research on our emotions, physical reactions, and cognition. They've come up with many different theories on "what comes first" and how we process and respond to our emotions. If you've come to this page to learn something new about our brains and our feelings, you're in the right place!
What Part of the Brain Processes Emotion?
Processing and feeling emotions begin when sensory information is collected and sent to the thalamus. From there, it either goes to another part of the limbic system or the cortex. Where the information ends up determines how "fast" we respond to our emotions.
We might have a knee-jerk reaction to seeing an ex or stew over a conversation we had with a friend until we are angry. Either way, our response is formed in the limbic system, which includes the following:
The Limbic System and Emotions
The limbic system itself is quite complex, but psychologists have a good idea as to what each structure within the limbic system does.
For many years, the amygdala was labeled as the area where fear and terror are processed. Yes, we can thank our amygdala for the "fight or flight" response. But the amygdala does more than tell us to scream or quake in horror. Recent theories suggest that the amygdala is always on the lookout for arousing cues. (In psychology, "arousal" is used to describe a sense of alertness and consciousness. We can reach high levels of arousal for good and not-so-good reasons.) Once these cues are discovered, the amygdala sends out signals to activate our "motivational circuitry."
The hippocampus is primarily responsible for making memories, but it also influences our emotions. We attach emotions to memories all the time. The stronger the emotion, the more likely we are to recall that memory.
This area of the brain handles receiving sensory information. Many emotions begin with sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste. Once our eyes, ears, skin, tongue, and nose pick up on those stimuli, they send up information to the thalamus and we begin to make sense of what is in front of us.
When our palms get sweaty or our body feels flush in highly emotional moments, we can thank our hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is key in keeping our bodies in homeostasis and releasing hormones. Hormones include:
- Cortisol (which we associate with stress)
- Adrenaline (which we associate with rage)
- Dopamine and serotonin (which we associate with joy)
Does the release of these hormones precede our recognition of emotions? That's what psychologists have been trying to figure out for decades.
Theories of Emotion and Arousal
This is our understanding of emotions now, but we didn't always trace this route to discover why we felt emotions. In the 1880s, psychologists William James and Carl Lange both proposed similar theories on emotion and arousal. James and Lange proposed that arousal was a response to a stimulus. Our emotions were simply a recognition of that arousal.
We now call this the James-Lange Theory, but it didn't last long as the prevailing theory of emotion. Forty years later, Walter Cannon and Philip Bard created the Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion. This theory suggests the opposite of the James-Lange Theory. Our brains collect sensory information and then tell our bodies how to respond.
This is like the theory I shared earlier in this post. Is this the current theory that psychologists use to explain emotions? Not really. Other ideas, like the facial feedback theory, challenged the idea that our bodies were simply responding to signals from the brain on how to feel.
Take a moment and smile. No, really. Smile real big. Keep smiling. Keep smiling until you find yourself feeling more joyful than you did before you smiled. This facial feedback theory illuminates how our bodies can influence our emotions, just like our thoughts.
Responses like this made psychologists question the Cannon-Bard Theory.
Two-Factor Theory of Emotion
In the 1960s, psychologists Schacter and Singer created the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion. This theory combined the James-Lange Theory and Cannon-Bard Theory. Yes, often sensory information travels through the thalamus to another part of the limbic system or cortex. In the limbic system, our brains send out signals that put us in fight-or-flight mode. Our cortex gathers information and our cognitive processes may adjust the way we react to the stimuli.
But we may also experience emotions as a response to physical changes in the body, James and Lange suggested.
To test this out, the psychologists conducted a fascinating study. They took two groups of subjects and injected them with adrenaline. One group was told they were going to experience a racing heart and a change in sensations that was simply a side effect of the injection. The other group was told that nothing would happen.
Subjects from both groups were then instructed to sit in a room. What they didn't know was that an actor was also in the room. The actor either acted aggressively or in an overly joyful manner. So what happened?
The results were fascinating. Many of the subjects mimicked the emotions of the actor, but they were more likely to mimic the emotions if they were not told about the injection. The subjects who knew about the effects of the injection did not let the actor influence them. Yes, they might have felt their heart racing, but they were more likely to attribute those feelings to the injection.
This misattribution of arousal is actually quite common. Studies show that we may misinterpret our emotions in some pretty funny situations. In one study, subjects were more likely to report being attracted to a woman after walking on a scary bridge!
How Does Cognition Play Into Our Emotions?
You might find yourself feeling your heart racing or your palms sweating. But theories like the two-factor theory suggest that you do not have to follow what your body may be telling you. The work that our cortex does to rationalize and make meaning of the world around us can also influence our emotions.
Knowing what you know now, take a moment to assess how your body is feeling. Now take a moment to assess how you are feeling. In reality, you can assign any emotion to yourself, and attribute your physical sensations to inside or outside factors. In this way, you can steer your emotions in a more suitable direction. Want to feel happy? Take a moment to consciously think about feeling happy. Whether you realize it or not, your breath might slow down and you might even smile. These cues will tell the body that it's okay to relax and release hormones that make you feel happy. Before you know it, the feelings you want to feel will "appear" throughout your body.
Our brains process sensations around us, and that may lead to us feeling some type of emotion. But remember, our brains will also process what is happening inside, and that makes a contribution to how we feel, too.