What are emotions and how are they mediated in our brain?
Our brain gathers information from the world through our five senses: hearing, smell, taste, touch and vision. If the pattern of incoming information matches templates in the brain’s emotional, or limbic, centers, these centers trigger our threat or reward systems, creating emotions in our minds. We feel anxiety or anger from threat signals, sadness from loss signals and pleasure from reward signals.
Emotions are felt experiences
Information about the internal state of our body influences emotional experiences. Some emotions are felt as physical symptoms that may be specific, such as a stomach ache, or general, such as not feeling well. Feelings, therefore, make emotions deep-seated, subjective and very personal.
As felt experiences, emotions are difficult to describe in words. That’s because thinking and language are derived from later processing in higher-order systems mediated by the cortex in our brain.
If emotions are sustained, we call them moods. Emotions may or may not be obvious to an observer through our facial expression or other cues.
Emotions are associative
Emotions are connected not by time but by associations. If we feel anxious, previous anxious situations are re-awakened and associated, independent of time (whether they happened yesterday or two years ago does not matter in the theater of emotions).
The length of an emotion is based on several factors, including whether our thoughts embellish them or try to inhibit them. If the emotion is sustained, it influences new situations we encounter. If we are angry and that state continues, the anger is brought into whatever new situation we are in, causing collateral damage. A bad day at work makes a bad evening at home more likely!
Ten characteristics of emotions
- Emotions occur immediately and are not deliberate or willful.
- Emotions are triggered before conscious awareness of their spark.
- Intensity of emotions is based on factors such as the degree of template matching and arousal level.
- Feelings reflect the internal state of our body.
- Sustained emotions are called moods.
- Emotions may or may not be obvious to others.
- Unlike thoughts, emotions are difficult to describe in words.
- Emotions are connected by associations, independent of when they occurred.
- Thoughts can embellish or inhibit emotions.
- Emotions can overflow into and color new situations.
What are thoughts?
Later processing in higher centers in the brain, such as the cortex, results in thoughts. Thoughts are a higher-order synthesis of several information streams that come together. One stream comes from emotions. Memories of past experiences provide another stream. Each stream is given a certain weight or value, so its influence on our thinking process can vary from time to time as its value changes.
When emotions are intense, they deeply influence our thinking. Intense anxiety, for example, results in our thoughts being worrisome, while sadness results in unhappy thoughts such as guilt and hopelessness. The value placed on specific information in the thought process varies among individuals. That’s why two people in the same situation can have different thoughts and reach different conclusions.
We can control our thoughts
As the sum of several information streams, thoughts have the capacity to be proportionate, reasoned and logical. From the memory stream, time enters as a factor, so our thoughts are sequential. Context is provided by the past or by simulations of the future, such as when we plan. Thinking can be goal-directed and can be expressed through language. Our sense of individual self allows our thoughts to come under willful control, and choice becomes an option.
Emotions influence thoughts
Emotions and thoughts are related. Ideally, they are in balance, meaning the arrow between them points in both directions. Damage to emotional centers in the brain results in people making poor choices, so emotions provide a foundational guidance for our judgment. Emotions can drive thoughts, and thoughts can embellish emotions or inhibit them. However, if emotions are intense, our thoughts are captive. When emotions are minimal, thoughts are in control.
Is behavior controlled by emotions or thoughts?
Behaviors are the actions driven by our Emotions and Thoughts. Intense emotions make certain behaviors more likely and more reactive, and give us fewer choices in our actions. Thus, anxiety drives agitated behavior, and sadness withdraws us from others. If our thoughts are in control of our behaviors, then our behaviors are deliberate, intentional, pre-meditated, goal-directed and willfully chosen.
The Threat and Reward Systems
Key hubs for triggering emotions are housed in a part of the brain called the limbic system. Two hubs are particularly vital: the amygdala, which mediates threat response, and the accumbens, which mediates reward. These have evolutionary value for individual and species survival and for motivating procreation. In our modern age, these hubs mediate common emotions. Anxiety, anger and sadness are derived from the threat system, and lack of pleasure comes from under-activity of the reward system.
Under acute threat, we experience anxiety and fear as emotions directed internally. Fear is focused on immediate and physical threat, while anxiety is a response to more diffuse threats or threats to our psychological self. Worry is the thinking process that anxiety generates; it’s the equivalent of spinning our mental wheels unproductively. The behaviors that commonly flow from fear and anxiety are agitation and avoidance.
Under acute threat, we may also experience anger as an emotion. Anger tends to be externalized, though we can turn it against ourselves too. Our thoughts tend toward blame when we are angry, and our behaviors can be hostile and impulsive.
Under sustained threat, or after loss, we feel sad or emotionally numb. Our thoughts tend to be negative, focusing on guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness or even suicide. As we seek comfort and solace from distress, our behavior is withdrawal.
If our reward system is faulty or inactive, we have difficulty experiencing emotional pleasure. Our mind may be devoid of thoughts, we may lack motivation, and our thinking may be futile. We have little incentive to approach pleasurable events, so we don’t seek them out.
The power of eMindLog to understand and manage your mental wellbeing
Emotions, thoughts and behaviors form the foundation of our self-assessment in eMindLog. They consider the two critical systems in our brain – response to threat and reward, and their functional states manifested in stress, anxiety and depression.
We have coupled our best knowledge of the brain and mind with mobile technology, making measurement of the vital signs of our mind available to you.
The 17 items measured in eMindLog™ query the different aspects of the threat system and reward system described above. We measure them daily because our lives are fluid with constant events that influence emotions, thoughts and behaviors. We use proprietary algorithms to extrapolate four indexes – Anxiety, Anger, Sadness and Lack of Pleasure. These are optimal measures for tracking the vital signs of our mind.
In addition, the weekly eMindLog™ identifies associated symptoms, quality of life and functioning on a weekly basis. Such assessments can be more easily averaged over several days to provide a clearer picture of our ongoing mental life.