The Brain and Science of Emotions

In this article there are a selection of publications on the science of emotions 


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Our ancient brains evolved the perfect way to keep us safe by controlling the chemicals in our mind to moderate our behaviour.

How are you feeling right now? Are you relaxed laying on your sofa and listening to the gentle sounds of the dawn chorus outside your window? Or maybe you are tense with your shoulders hunched up around yourself as you try to get five minutes peace in a busy office? You would think that it is easy to work out if we are happy or sad, angry or calm, but humans cycle through such a vast array of emotions throughout their lives it can be difficult to distinguish them from one another.
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Linda Davidoff defines emotion as a feeling that is expressed through physiological functions such as facial expressions, faster heartbeat, and behaviors such as aggression, crying, or covering the face with hands.

Based on discoveries made through neural mapping of the limbic system, the neurobiological explanation of human emotion is that emotion is a pleasant or unpleasant mental state organized in the limbic system of the mammalian brain.

Defined as such, these emotional states are specific manifestations of non-verbally expressed feelings of agreement, amusement, anger, certainty, control, disagreement, disgust, disliking, embarrassment, fear, guilt, happiness, hate, interest, liking, love, sadness, shame, surprise, and uncertainty.

If distinguished from reactive responses of reptiles, emotions would then be mammalian elaborations of general vertebrate arousal patterns, in which neurochemicals (e.g., dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin) step-up or step-down the brain's activity level, as visible in body movements, gestures, and postures.

In mammals, primates, and human beings, feelings are displayed as emotion cues.

For example, the human emotion of love is proposed to have evolved from paleocircuits of the mammalian brain (specifically, modules of the cingulated gyrus) designed for the care, feeding, and grooming of offspring.
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A paragraph from the Magazine َ"Scientific American"  Entitled "Feeling Our Emotions"

FOR CENTURIES, the fleeting and highly subjective world of feelings was the purview of philosophers. But during the past 30 years, Antonio R. Damasio has strived to show that feelings are what arise as the brain interprets emotions, which are themselves purely physical signals of the body reacting to external stimuli.

Born in 1944 in Lisbon, Portugal, Damasio has been chair of the University of Iowa's neurology department since 1986. He and his wife, neurologist Hanna Damasio, have created one of the world's largest databases of brain injuries, comprising hundreds of studies of brain lesions and diagnostic images. As profound as some of the damage is to Antonio Damasio's patients, all of it informs his understanding of how emotions and feelings arise and how they can affect mental illness.
In recent years, Damasio has become increasingly interested in the role emotions play in our decision-making processes and in our self-image. In several widely popular books, he has shown how certain feelings are cornerstones of our survival. And today he argues that our internal, emotional regulatory processes not only preserve our lives but actually shape our greatest cultural accomplishments.
—Interview by Manuela Lenzen





MIND: Professor Damasio, why are you so fascinated by the nature of human emotion?
Antonio R. Damasio: At first I was interested in all types of neurological injuries. If one area of the brain would lose its ability to function, the patient's behavior could change either dramatically or only subtly. One day I asked myself, What is missing in a person who can pass an intelligence test with flying colors but can’t even organize his own life? Such patients can hold their own in completely rational arguments but fail, for example, to avoid a situation involving unnecessary risk. These kinds of problems mainly occur after an injury to the forebrain. As our tests prove, the result is a lack of normal emotional reactions. I continue to be fascinated by the fact that feelings are not just the shady side of reason but that they help us to reach decisions as well.
MIND: You differentiate between feelings and emotions. How so?
Damasio: In everyday language we often use the terms interchangeably. This shows how closely connected emotions are with feelings. But for neuroscience, emotions are more or less the complex reactions the body has to certain stimuli. When we are afraid of something, our hearts begin to race, our mouths become dry, our skin turns pale and our muscles contract. This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously. Feelings occur after we become aware in our brain of such physical changes; only then do we experience the feeling of fear.
MIND: So, then, feelings are formed by emotions?
Damasio: Yes. The brain is constantly receiving signals from the body, registering what is going on inside of us. It then processes the signals in neural maps, which it then compiles in the so-called somatosensory centers. Feelings occur when the maps are read and it becomes apparent that emotional changes have been recorded—as snapshots of our physical state, so to speak.
MIND: According to your definition, all feelings have their origin in the physical. Is that really the case?
Damasio: Interestingly enough, not all feelings result from the body's reaction to external stimuli. Sometimes changes are purely simulated in the brain maps. For example, when we feel sympathy for a sick person, we re-create that person's pain to a certain degree internally. Also, the mapping of our physical state is never completely exact. Extreme stress or extreme fear and even physical pain can be dismissed; the brain ignores the physical signals that are transmitting the pain stimulus.
MIND: The differentiation between emotions and feelings brings to mind 17th-century philosopher Ren Descartes’ idea of dualism—that the body and mind represent autonomous systems. But you reject that idea, as you explain in your book Descartes' Error. How should we see the relationship between mind and body?
Damasio: To me, body and mind are different aspects of specific biological processes. Philosopher Baruch Spinoza supported views similar to mine, regarding the body and soul question, shortly after Descartes’ time. In his Ethics he wrote: “The object of the idea which constitutes the human mind is body.” Spinoza thereby anticipated the findings of modern neurobiology.
MIND: Indeed, in your latest book, Looking for Spinoza, you describe the man as “a mental immunologist developing a vaccine capable of creating antipassion antibodies.” So is only a life free of passions a good life?
Damasio: Spinoza fascinates me not only because he was ahead of his time with his ideas on biology but also for the conclusions he drew from these ideas about the correct way to live life and set up a society. Spinoza was a very life-affirming thinker. He recommended contrasting the negative emotions such as sadness and fear with joy, for example. He understood this kind of practice as a way to reach an inner peace and stoic equanimity.
MIND: What are some of the other functions that feelings have, in addition to helping us make decisions?

Damasio: My interest now extends way past the question of decision making. In our lab, we are working more intensely with social feelings such as sympathy, shame or pride—they form a foundation for morality. Neurobiol-ogy doesn’t simply help us to better understand human nature but also the rules of social interaction. Yet to really grasp this, we need a broader research approach: along with cognitive and neurological sciences, many of the humanities could contribute, especially anthropology and sociology.
MIND: It seems your research also extends into defining consciousness. What role do emotions play? What role does the body play?
Damasio: Consciousness, much like our feelings, is based on a representation of the body and how it changes when reacting to certain stimuli. Self-image would be unthinkable without this representation. I think humans have developed a self-image mainly to establish a homeostatic organism. The brain constantly needs up-to-date information on the body's state to regulate all the processes that keep it alive. This is the only way an organism can survive in an ever changing environment. Emotions alone—without conscious feelings—would not be enough. Adults would be as helpless as babies if they suddenly lost their self-image.
MIND: Animals also must possess consciousness, then?
Damasio: I do believe that animals develop a very basic self-concept—what I refer to as “core self.” But to have a broader self, such as we do, requires an autobiographical memory.
MIND: Do you believe that we will someday be able to create artificial consciousness and feelings?
Damasio: An organism can possess feelings only when it can create a representation of the body's functions and the related changes that occur in the brain. In this way, the organism can perceive them. Without this mechanism there would be no consciousness. It is unclear that this could ever develop in a machine or whether we really want machines with feelings.
MIND: Will research on emotions help lead to better forms of therapy for psychiatric illnesses?
Damasio: Without question. Emotional disorders form the core of most psychological illnesses—a good example of this is depression. Specific treatments will be developed in the future, such as new types of medicine that target distinct cellular and molecular systems. Other forms of therapy are also sure to benefit, from traditional psychotherapy to social intervention.
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The emotional response
Emotions are not a simple experience. Every time you feel something your body initiates a physiological change, a chemical release and a behavioural response. This process involves multiple processes working together, including your major organs, neurotransmitters and the limbic system. Your limbic system is the most primordial part of your brain, thought to have first evolved in early mammals. It’s filled with ancient neural pathways that activate our emotions in response to stimuli and controls our fight-or-flight response through the autonomic nervous system.
This response evolved from a need to make decisions based on our emotions. As our body fills with adrenaline and our heart starts racing we prepare to react; do we stay to fight the bear that has come scavenging for food, or do we flee to somewhere safe? We can still feel the effects of this response. When we are confronted for not doing the dishes we might feel the same fight-or-flight response as our adrenaline starts to flood our system. Our heart rate and breathing increases, the fine hairs on our arms might stand on end, and our hands feel clammy as we decide if we are going to stay and argue or if we are going to escape to the safety of our bedroom.
The biological sensations in our bodies in response to emotions can feel very similar to one another. Imagine your palms sweating, feeling your cheeks warm as they flush red, and your heart pounding in your chest. You could feel this because you are sitting nervously in the dentist’s waiting room, or you could be excited as you wait to see your loved ones after they return from a holiday – the physiological reaction is the same. The interpretation of emotions is our logical brain rationalising these responses and describing them as feelings. We take into consideration the context and label our emotions accordingly.
However, we don’t all do this the same way. Because our bodies cause different floods of chemicals in response to different environmental triggers, each person naturally reacts to situations differently. Have you ever seen someone who is being berated in a meeting but facing the onslaught with nothing more than a slightly raised eyebrow? Or watched as someone finds out some bad news but keeps their composure? You are sure that you would have raised your voice or burst into tears, but our responses are defined by how our neurons are networked together. Our past experiences and genetic predispositions influence our brain chemistry and therefore our physiological responses, which in turn determine how we react to various situations – like someone cancelling on us last minute, or surprising us by showing up at the front door unannounced.
At times our emotions can seem like an irrational response, but our brains have carefully evolved these mechanisms with just one target – keeping us alive. While we interpret different emotions as positive or negative, the most ancient parts of the human brain developed them on the principle that we must survive. We evolved emotions as a means of communicative function and to help us navigate social interactions and our environment safely: they are designed to protect us.
Evolution and emotions
Our fear responses were originally a survival tactic that warned us of potential dangers, such as our innate unease around spiders and snakes. Then there is the feeling of disgust, which warns of foods or other substances that may be dangerous. Our other emotions are responses to social interactions that keep us part of a group because we are fundamentally a social species, and throughout our evolution have relied on our tribe to help us survive by working together to find food and shelter. Anger is a response to perceived social threats or a signal of dominance, pride can help us to boost our social status, while shame is intended t0 decrease our standing within a group. These emotions maintain the social balance of our environment safely: they are designed to protect us. Our fear responses were originally a survival tactic that warned us of potential dangers, such as our innate unease around spiders and snakes. Then there is the feeling of disgust, which warns us of foods or other substances that may be dangerous. Our other emotions are responses to social interactions that keep us part of a group. We are fundamentally a social species, and throughout our evolution have relied on our tribe to help us survive by working together to find food and shelter. Anger is a response to perceived social threats or a signal of dominance, pride can help us to boost our social status, while shame is intended to decrease our standing within a group.
These emotions maintain the social balance of our tribe – who we follow, who we trust, who we care about. The fundamental emotions that motivate us individually are almost always sadness and happiness. Sadness results from loss and serves the biological purpose of motivating a person to recover that loss, whether it is a young child searching for their mother in a supermarket, or trying hard to get a new job after being dismissed. But the ultimate human emotion is happiness, and we are all in search of it. When you’re sitting around a campfire, safe in the countryside with some close friends and good food, you feel happy because you have found the resources that your primitive brain is seeking. Our species is drawn so much to happiness because this emotion is our brain’s reward system for finding environments where we are free from threat. A healthy human brain copes with sadness when social bonds are broken, communicates with our loved ones and can recognise and regulate our emotions even when they do not feel particularly positive. The next time you sit in an airport departure lounge, look for the emotions. Our bodies have created these experiences – the tears as we say goodbye, the smiles and laughter as we are reunited – for the purpose of keeping us alive. Our emotions and feelings are fundamentally what makes us human, but it means we’re in for a bit of a rollercoaster along the way
Discover Infographic " Inforgraphic The Anatomy of Emotions "

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