Emotions are believed to have become a part of our genetic blue print as a result of the long period of our history in which we were exposed to life threatening dangers on a constant basis, and the automatic reactions that accompany emotion would have meant the difference between survival and death. Of course this major aspect of the brain and mind did not simply dissolve once our environment began rapidly changing through the advancements of civilisation. The result is,
“…we too often confront postmodern dilemmas with an emotional repertoire tailored to the urgencies of the Pleistocene.”
Anger, fear, happiness, love, surprise, disgust and sadness all play a particular role and drive us to act and behave in certain ways. It is the combination of this emotional mind and the rational, logical mind that results in our thoughts and actions. There is a very definite relationship between the intensity of the feelings we experience and the magnitude of influence this emotional mind has. Over time reason and memory have developed to improve the way these emotions affect us, from being able to learn and adapt through to planning for future encounters. These developments allow for a vastly improved and broader range of possible actions to be driven by our feelings of affection or aversion.
An interesting finding over the past two decades is the power the amygdala has to take control over what we do before our thinking brain, the neocortex, arrives at a decision. This ‘hijacking’ has occurred to all of us and is responsible for those times we respond to a situation completely impulsively and later have a sense of having lost control over what we were doing and possibly even regret what we did. Our thinking brain was ‘overridden’ and rationality was momentarily inaccessible. This is largely possible due to the privileged position the amygdala holds regarding incoming information to the thalamus. Some information is conveyed directly to the amygdala over a single synapse whilst all necessary information is transmitted through several levels of brain circuits to the sensory processing areas of the neocortex for integration and perception. This is a part of the ‘sentinal’ role that the amygdala plays allowing the amygdala to receive some direct inputs from the senses and start a response before they are even fully registered by the neocortex. This gatekeeper role ensures that at the first hint of a threat, the mind and body are primed for an immediate and intense response. As in a life threatening situation those milliseconds could make all the difference.
The amygdala is constantly scanning our current experience, associatively comparing it to memories of similar experiences. Unfortunately what the amygdala considers to be a match may only have a very slight resemblance to a past experience.
“Thus a former army nurse, traumatized by the relentless flood of ghastly wounds she once tended in wartime, is suddenly swept with a mix of dread, loathing and panic - a repeat of her battlefield reaction triggered once again, years later, by the stench when she opens a closet door to find her toddler had stashed a stinking diaper there.”
Sometimes only a few very arbitrarily related elements are all that is necessary to drive the amygdala to signal a state of emergency. This imprecision is compounded by the fact that many very potent emotional memories date from the first few years of life, before the neocortex has even fully developed.
It would appear that the brain’s damper switch for the amygdala lies within the prefrontal cortex for all but the most intense emotional signals from the amygdala. The right prefrontal lobe is the seat of negative feelings with the left regulating those feelings through inhibition. Problems with either of the structures as well as their communicating fibres, due to anything from developmental issues to trauma, will result in the associated impairment of regulation and function.
It is thus clear that it is impossible to guarantee full control over the way we feel or respond to certain circumstances. Many feelings we experience and many reactions that we elicit are a result of processes that have little relevance to our current situation and override our ability to rationalise. Information like this makes it clear that no amount of determination is enough to change the way we interact with the world around us, many hours have to be spent rewiring the way the brain processes incoming information. In the future I will go into the effects of meditation on these emotional processes so stay tuned.