The Science of Emotions
Ever felt like you were going to blow your lid? Lose your cool? Flip out?
I’d be hard pressed to find a human who hasn’t experienced the out of control sensation of emotions running wild; that fight or flight feeling that causes our blood to seemingly boil and our hearts to race in panic. As a teacher and a parent, I spend a lot of time working through feelings, my own, as well as those of the amazing young people around me at home and at school.
Since it doesn’t get much more personal than feelings running amuck, I find it helpful to take a step back and look at those tumultuous ups and downs as a science. Looking at emotions as a science gives us a way to expand our emotional toolkits, build resilience, develop coping mechanisms, and identify support strategies when working with others.
Image used with permission: By Camazine [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Science of Emotions
Our brain is made up of about 85 billion neurons - that’s a lot of horsepower to harness, so it’s no wonder that as humans we often ride the roller coaster of our emotions. Learning more about how our brains work can empower us to feel more grounded and peaceful in our daily lives. Additionally, understanding the science of emotions can help us in our interactions with those around us.
To put it simply, our brain is for three purposes:
1st - Survival - first and foremost, it’s priority is survival
2nd - Feelings - we are feeling creatures who think, we’re not thinking creatures who feel
3rd - Thinking/Cognition - this process is broken down into 3 different parts of the brain
Our brain stem is our “reptilian” part of the brain - meaning it seeks out/needs basic sensory comforts.
Our amygdala is our emotional brain - it is located on each side of your brain above your ears. When it activates, the prefrontal cortex shuts down.
Our prefrontal cortex (frontal lobe) is our thinking brain - it shuts down when the amygdala is in control.
Who’s Driving? The Prefrontal Cortex or the Amygdala?
The emotional part of the brain is referred to as the limbic system. When we’re scared, a small structure called the amygdala sounds the alarm. When we’re happy, structures within the limbic system release dopamine. Our brain stem seeks and is rewarded by basic comforts and sensations.
The limbic system sends messages up to the prefrontal cortex, which then informs our higher-level thinking. Unfortunately, this means the limbic system - specifically the amygdala and the brain stem - can control the prefrontal cortex; i.e. our feelings can run wild and call the shots in our lives. The good news is, with effort, this also means the prefrontal cortex can control the limbic system and help us to feel more in control of our emotional roller coasters.
When we (or our learners) “lose our cool,” the limbic system - our emotional brain - has actually taken control. The prefrontal cortex - thinking brain - has left the building and we are now operating in a reactive, more primal way. The language of the prefrontal cortex is words - it can be reasoned with. When things are hitting the fan and someone is heightened emotionally, many of us try to respond with words and this simply doesn’t work - you can’t reason with the amygdala or brain stem.
The language of the amygdala is feelings, while the language of the brain stem is sensation. When someone is heightened we have to “speak” their amygdala or brain stem languages. Ask: what do you want? How can I help? What can we do to make this better? Validate (when appropriate):
That must have made you feel really angry.
I hear that.
I hear you.
What a frustrating situation to be in.
Work to connect before correcting or advising. Observe first, connect, listen, then work with them to decide what needs to be done, if anything.
Feelings vs. Emotions
Feelings and emotions are the same thing, right? This is a common assumption. Noted neurologist Antonio R. Damasio observes that, “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.” Meaning, feelings are caused by emotions. Feelings are how our brain processes emotions. He goes one step further to assert that feelings influence our decision-making, for better and for worse.
Mindfulness: Responding Instead of Reacting
Strong emotions tend to lead to knee-jerk reactions; this was an evolutionary necessity back in the day, but isn’t particularly helpful in our modern era when we respond to rush hour traffic in the same physiological way as our ancestors running from tigers. Or dinosaurs. You get the idea.
For example, the emotion of fear breeds uncertainty, while anger breeds confidence, risk-taking, and impulsivity. Angry people tend to place blame on others and/or society. Interestingly enough, happiness doesn’t help us much on the decision-making front, either. When someone is feeling happiness, they are less likely to pay attention to details or the quality of a message and more likely to just respond to the attractiveness of someone or something. Conversely, just the right amount of sadness can lead to thinking and problem-solving, but it’s a fine line between problem-solving and ruminating/obsessing. What’s a person supposed to do?
The practice of mindfulness may very well be the answer. Mindfulness, in its simplest terms, means to stop, take a moment, breathe, and observe what’s happening in your body. That moment’s pause is a way of checking in with yourself so that you can choose to move on from something, or respond to it with your logical mind. Holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankl, said it best, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
It is comforting and empowering to understand that we have a choice in how we will respond to situations. We can take a breath. We can empower ourselves and the young people around us to recognize what’s happening in our bodies, since our bodies tell us when something is wrong faster than our mind does.
Mind Over Matter
It’s empowering to gain better understanding of how we process and respond to the circumstances around us, how emotions become feelings, and how those feelings manifest. When things happen (which they always do), if we can learn to take a moment, take a breath, and stay grounded, we can learn to respond instead of react. This skill will put us and the people around us well on our way to a more mindful, and ultimately peaceful, way of being. Finding the balance between acknowledging our feelings and being ruled by them requires raising awareness of how our amazing minds and bodies work.
Feeling Our Emotions Scientific American
The Best Headspace for Making Decisions The Atlantic
Webinar: The American Montessori Society series on Trauma and Stress
Seminar: Addressing the Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs of Our Students