The human brain is a complex organ to study. In studying it, we cannot help but be subjective, as the studying of the brain is simply using the brain to look at itself. Necessarily our interpretation of what we see is colored by the brain’s own abilities and interpretations. Some people have equated this with looking into a mirror (1). Often times when we think of objectively studying something, such as our brain, we think that we must use logic reasoning and leave out those things which we perceive to be more subjective, such as intuition and emotions (2). However, in my exploration of the topic of emotions, I have discovered that they are the result of biological processes in the brain, and so, while subjective in the sense that they influence how we interpret experiences, the actual act of experiencing emotions (as long as it is not skewed by what we think that we are feeling or by what we want to feel) can be objective in the sense that we are simply recognizing input from the brain.1
It has been shown that decisions are closely informed by emotions. A good example of this is the case of Phineas Gage (3). Gage suffered an injury while working on the railroad that destroyed the frontal lobe of his brain. The consequence was that his emotions were affected. Also, however, he was unable to make decisions. So, while decision making is often viewed as a rational process, in which we want to minimize the role of emotions, it appears that emotional processes are vital to the process of making a decision. In some ways this makes sense; emotions offer insight as to how we will feel about a decision later by allowing us to consider consequences against the emotional impact they will have on us (4, 5). Research has shown that it is actually the secondary emotions that are not being received as a result of the loss of the frontal lobe (5).
Primary emotions refer to those emotions that come to us initially in a situation (4, 6). After the initial emotional response, emotions may change by intensifying (4) or by being modified by other thought processes (6), perhaps reason. These emotions make up the secondary emotions and show that the human mind is quite complex because, unlike the primary emotions, these emotions can be influenced by processes other than the emotional (6) and can be a derived emotion from the combination of various other emotions (4). It appears to be these secondary emotions that are called upon to make decisions (5).2
Emotions help us to communicate and relate to other members of our species (4, 8), therefore playing a vital role in evolutionary survival and societal success. Emotions such as fear and anxiety pick up on when a situation is not safe, warning the mind that one should proceed cautiously (8). It is also interesting to note that humans worldwide translate their emotions into the same facial expressions (8). We are already born with many of the emotions hardwired and begin to interpret emotions in others when we are very young (3). Thus, emotions serve to communicate our needs and desires to others, while also keeping our mental and physical wellbeing secured by showing where to draw lines when interacting with others (4).
While it may at first seem surprising that so many parts of the brain are hardwired for emotional response, emotions play a huge role in society by guiding interactions, and in the survival of the human species in the past, by offering a way to quickly interpret the danger of a situation both from an emotional response, and from one that evolves through the integration of previous experiences of dangerous situations in the form of emotional memories. Both of these ways of understanding the situation come from emotional memories and responses. When we consider the survival role of emotions in humans, it begins to make sense that human brains would devote a lot of energy to the emotions. That is indeed what is seen in the brain.
A significant center for emotions in the brain is an area called the limbic system, which consists of various parts of the brain including the olfactory bulb, hippocampus, and the amygdala. This system communicates with the neocortex as well (3). A more specific example of how this works can be seen in the amygdala, which is a part of the brain that perceives fear (8). In a frightening situation, the amygdala receives sensory input through what are called the thalamic pathways. These pathways are an ancient part of the human brain (easy to understand considering they are important for recognizing dangers situations), that move the message of the stimulus quickly, though without giving very detailed instructions on what the stimulus means. Instead, the impulses from this region come into the amygdala with the general message that there is danger of some kind. Not only does this process serve to ready the human to respond to the danger, it also allows the human to store the experience so that it can be used to prepare the human for a similar situation in the future. Thus, emotions come from complex interactions between many parts of the brain but serve many important functions.
The many roles of emotions and their interactions with other brain processes, such as reasoning and intuition, make them difficult to study. Our attempts to understand the brain by using the brain is a delicate dance between subjective and objective understandings. The objective interpretation of what emotion or emotions we feel must be interfaced with the subjective way in which the feeling of that emotion affects how we think about our experience. Considering the various other processes taking place in the human brain, such as reasoning and intuition, this seems a daunting task. Nonetheless, emotions play such a large role in the life of the human that we must continue to explore them further, both in the scientific setting, and in the personal setting of one’s own experiences of them.
(1) Tracer, Bill M. Socyberty. “The Dual Mind: Logic and Intuition.” <http://www.socyberty.com/Psychology/The-Dual-Mind-Logic-and-Intuition.52612/1>. Oct. 18, 2007.
(2) Sciencelive. “Intuition and Emotion in Science.” <http://www.sciencelive.org/component/option,com_mediadb/task,play/idstr,CUSP-BAFOS06-05c-Gosling_and_Haste/vv,-2/Itemid,26>.
(3) Campbell, Neil A. & Jane B. Reece. Biology. 7th ed. Pearson: New York, 2005. pg. 1034-1035.
(4) Hein, Steve. Emotions- Importance of; management of negative feelings; positive value of. “General Page on Emotions.” <http://eqi.org/emotions.htm>.
(5) Arendal, Laura. “The Emotional Brain.” BrainConnection. <http://www.brainconnection.com/topics/?main=fa/emotional-brain>. May 2000.
(6) ChangingMinds. “Primary and Secondary Emotions.” <http://changingminds.org/explanations/emotions/primary_secondary.htm>. 2007.
(7) Blakeslee, Sandra. The New York Times. “In Work on Intuition, Gut Feelings are Tracked to Source: The Brain.” <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D03E3DA1630F937A35750C0A961958260>. March 4, 1997.
(8) Science Museum. Who am I? “Your brain.” <http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/exhibitions/brain/282.asp>.
1 This view makes reasoning appear as the subjective part of the mind, because it interprets the stimulus we receive according to ulterior motives, such as what it wants to believe or experience.
2 In a sense, intuition (something that we often associate with a feeling but rarely confuse with emotion) can also be called a decision (in that a kind of instinctual and immediate impression has been made) and it may also rely on memories of emotions associated with past experiences. The emotions serve as consequences of past experiences whereby current experiences can be compared to determine the outcome with the better emotional consequence. (7)