What part of the brain controls emotions?
The amygdala is located at the base of your brain. It’s a small almond shaped structure with two long arms extending from it. The almond shape makes it easy to see inside the structure, but difficult to get out again without surgery. The almond shape makes it easier to understand how the structure works. When someone feels sad or angry, they release chemicals into their bloodstream called neurotransmitters. These chemical messengers travel through the blood stream and affect other parts of the body such as muscles, glands, organs and even neurons.
Neurotransmitters are responsible for transmitting messages between nerve cells (brain cells). They control many functions in the human body including emotions.
There are several types of neurotransmitters. Some transmit feelings while others cause physical reactions like muscle twitches or seizures. All neurotransmitters have specific effects depending on which part of the brain they reach first. For example, dopamine causes euphoria when it reaches the nucleus accumbens (the “pleasure center” of the brain). On the other hand, cortisol causes anxiety when it reaches the hippocampus (the “fear center” of the brain).
The amygdala is one of the few parts of the brain that doesn’t have a specific neurotransmitter. The main purpose of the amygdala is to decide how you should react to different emotions.
It works in two ways:
It releases hormones into your blood stream to help with different reactions. When you feel fear, it releases hormones to tell your body to run away.
When you feel angry, it releases hormones to help you fight. It controls other parts of the brain that have specific neurotransmitters. For example, if you feel fear and your amygdala decides running is the best course of action, it will tell your locus coeruleus to release norepinephrine. This will cause your muscles to tense up and get ready to run.
The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain. Norepinephrine and epinephrine are neurotransmitters that affect the sympathetic nervous system.
That’s part of the automatic nervous system which controls unconscious actions necessary for survival like digestion, breathing and heart rate. When you’re under stress these actions increase. This is known as the fight or flight response. This response helps animals survive by giving them extra strength to fight or run away from a potential threat.
Why does the brain control fear?
The brain is the control center of the body. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to do anything. The brain controls everything that we do. It tells our heart to beat, our lungs to breathe and our stomach to digest food. It even controls our ability to move, feel emotion and think. Everything we do relies on how the brain reacts to things.
Fear is no different from any of those automatic bodily functions. It’s part of the nervous system which is controlled by the brain.
The fear response arises when we witness something that puts our lives at risk (like a car crash). This response is necessary for survival because it prepares the body to defend itself.
The amygdala causes this response by releasing hormones into the bloodstream. One of these hormones is cortisol.
It increases your heart rate to allow more blood flow to muscles. It also increases your blood sugar to provide more energy. Another hormone, adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), causes your heart rate and breathing to increase. It also makes your blood pressure rise. These changes cause more blood to flow to your muscles preparing you to run.
These hormones also affect the following:
Pupils – They enlarge so that you can see more clearly.
Stomach – It slows down to provide a steady supply of energy.
If these changes don’t happen quickly enough, you may experience the following:
High blood pressure
These are all the effects of fear on the body. They’re all automatic and require no conscious thought.
The brain just reacts to what’s happening and releases the correct hormones into the bloodstream.
Do other animals feel fear?
Most mammals have a similar limbic system to the brain. This system controls emotions and is responsible for producing hormones that cause fear in the body. This suggests that other mammals also experience fear.
However, many scientists believe that only humans can experience the psychological aspect of fear. This means that although other animals may feel afraid, they lack the concept of being afraid.
They can’t be terrified of something because they don’t understand the concept of terror. For example, a dog that has had a bad experience with vacuum cleaners will always be afraid of them. However, the dog doesn’t know that the vacuum is something to be afraid of. It just knows to avoid it because it caused pain.
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Sources & references used in this article:
Emotion, memory and the brain by JE LeDoux – Scientific American, 1994 – JSTOR
Fatigue is a brain-derived emotion that regulates the exercise behavior to ensure the protection of whole body homeostasis by TDOMS Noakes – Frontiers in physiology, 2012 – frontiersin.org
A critical role for” affective neuroscience” in resolving what is basic about basic emotions. by J Panksepp – 1992 – psycnet.apa.org
What is emotion?: History, measures, and meanings by J Kagan – 2007 – books.google.com
Lost for emotion words: what motor and limbic brain activity reveals about autism and semantic theory by RL Moseley, Y Shtyrov, B Mohr, MV Lombardo… – Neuroimage, 2015 – Elsevier
Differential lateralization for positive and negative emotion in the human brain: EEG spectral analysis by AR Damasio – 1999 – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Emotion and cognition and the amygdala: from “what is it?” to “what’s to be done?” by GL Ahern, GE Schwartz – Neuropsychologia, 1985 – Elsevier
What is basic about basic emotions? Lasting lessons from affective neuroscience by L Pessoa – Neuropsychologia, 2010 – Elsevier
Emotion by J Panksepp, D Watt – Emotion review, 2011 – journals.sagepub.com