Emotions can be overpowering, but they are also the driving force of life. It was long thought that emotion and thought were separate processes. Brain science has begun to realise that the brain is not an organ of thought, but that it is a feeling organ that thinks. A tiny almond shaped structure deep in the brain, the Amygdala, is the first to respond to an emotional event. It triggers a series of reactions within the brain’s emotional core and sends signals throughout the body that change body posture, facial expression, heart-rate, breathing and awareness. The emotions are important in social interaction and in forming social connections. The awareness of emotion is crucial to motivation, decision-making, memory and forethought. Learning how to manage our emotions is an important skill that we continually develop throughout our lives.
Problems arise when emotions persist for longer than normal periods. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one example where powerful emotional memories can trigger abnormal behaviour. PTSD can appear after a particularly traumatic period or life-event. It doesn’t always appear immediately after the event, but can sometimes appear years later, often in the aging brain. Clinical depression is another disorder that impairs the healthy function of the brain. Clinical depression is a chronic and profound disorder. Brain science has found no obvious pathology or physical abnormality for this disorder, it is characterised only by an assortment of clinical signs and symptoms. The signature of depression is found in the activity of nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is employed in understanding and engaging with the world. In depression, there is an impairment in the pattern of activity in this area of the brain. Stress, while a normal part of normal brain function, triggers excessive amounts of cortisol release in the brain. In excessive amounts, the naturally occurring hormone, cortisol, can be toxic. It is important that we understand how emotions play a pivotal role in brain function. It will help us understand the normal brain as well as the workings of the impaired brain.