Role of Emotions in Brain Function

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.


Emotions in higher cognition
The contribution of Emotions to higher cognition
The Brain and Emotion

Published by

Paul Mason

I am a biomedically trained social anthropologist interested in biological and cultural diversity.

7 thoughts on “Role of Emotions in Brain Function

  1. In regards to your comment: “Emotional Brain Humans are an emotional creature”, I like your suggestion that it takes multiple humans to create one emotional creature. Oh, and I’ve heard that it takes more humans to create one emotional creature if they’re lawyers.

  2. You are probably right Mason! But this is an interesting concept. The fact that emotions have a huge impact on other areas of the brain functioning implicates that certain emotions could make an already existing condtion worse or better. High hopes and positive outlooks about ones condition or state of being could help in their recovery or healing. While depressed, stressed, or worried emotional states can cause complications to get worse.

  3. Some nice quotes from “Descarte’s Error” by Antonio Damasio:

    “…all emotions generate feelings if you are awake and alert, but not all feelings originate in emotions” (p. 143).

    “The automated somatic-marker device of most of us lucky enough to have been reared in a relatively healthy culture has been accomodated by education to the standards of rationality of that culture” (p. 200).

    “…to know does not necessarily mean to feel, even when you realise that what you know ought to make you feel in a specific way but fails to do so” (p. 211).

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