A Project Encephalon & The Science Paradox Collaboration article
Web of Emotions, as the title suggests, is an article simplifying the complicated web of the neural process behind the emotional aspect of a human being. Everyday instances, as well as hypothetical scenarios, are used to explain to the reader the origin of emotions and how they come into play in our very survival. A learning point of this article is to let emotions guide us to become who we are as an individual as well as a community as a whole.
Have you ever heard someone say, “That a person doesn’t think before speaking” or “That person is too emotionally wrapped up to think rationally”?
What are these emotions? What are feelings? What are different emotions? Is it just happiness, sadness, anger or fear or are there many other complex emotions that come to play?
Have you ever wondered why you hate cats and love dogs so much or vice-versa? Why do you feel sick in the pit of the stomach before writing an exam, or have tears in your eyes while listening to a sad song, or even laugh while watching your favorite comedian in action? In essence, how does your body know which emotions to feel, when to feel them and why? And this is exactly the topic that we will explore in this article.
To help understand this topic better let's first understand what emotions are.
In a crude way of explaining, emotions define us, make us stand out from each other (and AI!), shape our opinions and help us communicate and most importantly, understand each other.
There are two types- simple and complex, complex ones originating from the simple to state the obvious. To name a few-
Simple- happy, sad, anger, fear
Complex- jealousy, anxiousness, confused.
(Fun fact-Did you know that we have more unpleasant emotions in our hardware than pleasant ones?)
Now the question arises as to how these complex feelings come together to create us as individuals. On conducting a random survey, some people responded, saying that feelings come from the heart, others said they come from the brain, or they come from experiences and some even said they come from hormones. This wide range of opinions gave me the idea to write this article so that everyone could get a better understanding of what makes me love chocolate cake more than red velvet! Or in other words where do these emotions come from?
The major system that creates these emotions in our body is the limbic system. It controls the autonomic nervous system as well as the endocrine system to produce hormones that control these emotions.
The limbic system consists of 4 major structures that work together to express emotions-
Thalamus- relays all senses, except smell
Hippocampus- memory system (that can evoke emotions)
Amygdala- if stimulated produces aggressive emotions (anger, violence, fear and anxiety)
Hypothalamus-regulates ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) and endocrine system (adrenaline and norepinephrine).
Image source: https://mypsychsite.weebly.com/limbic-system.html
There are two systems in our body arising from the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system plays a role in ‘fight or flight’ situations and releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to face the challenge. When this system is rewarded as in the case of a child receiving a chocolate for completing its homework, it releases happy hormones like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. The parasympathetic pathway, on the other hand, helps to get our body back to a neutral state.
We have understood where emotions arise from in our body, and now that we have understood the facts we can dive deep into the concepts!
Any stimuli to our brain for example, a challenge or a threat, gears up the limbic system. This in turn produces changes in our body like changes in heart rate, skin temperature sweating, bowel movements, and even a change in the biochemical level of metabolism. With all this going on inside the body the voluntary skeletal muscles of our face help in communicating expression aka emotions without words like frowning, smiling, scowling and crying.
An easy way to understand this is to look at how actors produce emotions voluntarily through their expressions and sometimes even through past experiences lodged in their long-term memories. With this piece of knowledge, we can even conclude that voluntary muscle expressions can stimulate hormones in our body that produce emotional stimuli in our brain and hence help us, the audience, perceive that emotion in our mind.
We now realize that emotions are not just an individual's identity but also a species’ as a whole and can be shared among us as our own feelings.
Sometimes it’s these emotions that take over our thinking centers that make the person behave irrationally or sometimes take over our subconscious mind causing us to think in a certain way-like one person may have the fear of being on stage thinking they will get booed off while others have absolutely no stage-fright at all.
So now that we know how to perceive emotions we can now understand how we use these emotions in our everyday life?
Well a “stone age” answer would be - to survive.
For example- You are chased down the road by a dog or a rat. This will instill fear in your mind of getting bitten. So, the animal here is the stimulus that is activating the amygdala(producing the emotion of fear)and in turn stimulating our sympathetic system to switch on the fight or flight mode for survival. (I mean, who wants rabies or the plague right?)
The complex emotions like suspicion, hopelessness, irritability, loneliness, contentment and anxiety all arise from basic emotions. For example, suspicion arises from fear and loneliness arises from sadness which then makes our life as what we call it in a modern world “complicated”.
For Example- if a person has spent most of his or her childhood in fear then the person may tend to grow up to be emotionally guarded.
Thus, emotions and experiences play a huge role in our thinking and conscious as well as subconscious thought processes.At the end of the day, we realise that it is our emotions that guide our choices to become who we are and that the field of neuroscience helps us understand how beautifully our emotions are integrated into our delicate system of thinking to build this world around us.
1. Guyton and Hall- Book of Physiology
Written By: Aditi Kulkarni (TSP)
Aditi Kulkarni is currently pursuing her undergrad degree in Smt.Kashibai Navale Medical College. She is a third year medical student who is also an active member of the Medical Students Association of India (MSAI). Her passion for medicine and writing is combined perfectly in her articles at ‘The Science Paradox’. When she is not nerding out over David Attenborough, she can be found baking, making art or singing.
Illustrated By: Aiswarya P S (PE)
Edited By: Luminaa Anandh (TSP) and Maalavika Govindarajan (PE)