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“Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.” – Pablo Picasso
- ) Introduction
- ) Our emotional spectrum
- ) Exploring our most important organ
- ) Emotions and the brain
- ) Abnormal states of mind
- ) Conclusion/Related reading
- ) References
This piece allows you to venture into the depths of our emotional state of mind. It is written from the stance of affective neuroscience – a branch, which is primarily related to the emotional changes brought about by our brain. After reading the following work, you will first and foremost be able to have a general understanding of our emotional dimensions. Besides, you will also be able to connect the dots between specific regions of our most complex organ, and their ramifications on emotions. You will also possess a basic understanding regarding our brain and improve your understanding about a variety of topics related to abnormal states of our being.
By the way, I have decided to employ a rather simplistic style of writing, which deviates from my “usual” philosophical way of conveying information, so as to make my essay more easily digestible. I may continue on doing so in future posts, but only time can tell.
2) Our emotional spectrum
Before I’ll plunge into the topic of emotional dimensions, I would like to point out a set of distinctions, which precede our emotions.
These increase by order of magnitude, moving down from the top:
- Emotional State – a fleeting state, which is triggered by means of experience.
- Mood – A somewhat consistent feeling, whose effects may last from minutes to days.
- Emotional Trait – A fundamental way of conductance, which lasts years.
- Emotional Style – A consistent way of responding to certain external stimuli by means of emotion (thus a habitual, somewhat ingrained response).
With that being said, I am now going to offer you the framework for the following article.
Click here to see an enlarged overview of our emotional dimensions!
The mirror of our emotional well-being can be broken down into 6 general fragments:
- Resilience: how long it takes you to recover from negative influences.
- Outlook: how quickly you are able to regain a positive state of mind.
- Social Intuition: how proficient you are at noticing social cues.
- Self-Awareness: how capable you are at perceiving your own state of being.
- Sensitivity to Context: how appropriately you respond to different social settings.
- Attention: how good you are at focusing on a multitude of external stimuli, respectively on a specific task at hand.
Our brain, as well as our emotions, and ultimately speaking, our physical health, are tightly intertwined.
One part of the equation always works in conjunction with another one. It is therefore worth mentioning that our way of conductance leaves a fine set of fingerprints on specific regions of our most important organ. Moving further down this train of thought, it is imperative to understand that your thoughts serve as the very fabric of your existence. Your way of thinking about a specific shard of your existence ultimately gives rise to the color-spectrum in regard to creating the paint that your reality constitutes.
Equipped with knowledge regarding the abovementioned framework, we will now explore deeper layers of our very existence.
The bizarre case of Phineas Gage
Phineas Gage was an American railroad construction worker, who was in charge of preparing the roadbed. This entailed creating a hole in an outcrop of rock, whilst adding blasting powder, and a fuse. Followed by the usage of the tamping iron to “tamp” sand, clay, or other inert material into the beforementioned cavity on top of the powder.
On September 13, 1848, Gage was doing just that. This time, however, was different, for he became distracted by fellow workers behind him. Unbeknownst to him, he positioned his head right in line with the blast hole. He opened his mouth to speak. At this exact moment, the fuse ignited – due to the tamping iron, that sparked against the rock – which catapulted the tamping iron through the left side of Gage’s face in an upward direction. His skull got pierced in the process. He was back on his feet within a few minutes and seemed to be as lively as ever.
Initially, it appeared as if the only permanent damage was done to his left eye, but there was way more to this mishap than primarily anticipated.
This unlucky turn of events changed Mr. Gage’s behavior in an unprecedented manner.
The onset of said impalement led to a negative cascade concerning his emotional constitution – he started throwing tantrums on a regular basis. Besides, he appeared to have been incapable of sticking to one of the many plans in regard to future operations, which he has devised. The equilibrium between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities has seemingly been annihilated.
For the left frontal region of our brain is the seat of positive emotions, as well as reasoning and propensities related to planning and decision-making.
The other side of our temple is the seat of negative emotions. If one were to have the right part of their head damaged, their whole way of conductance would shift towards the other extreme of pathologicalness – excessive laughter, respectively happiness during inappropriate moments.
Implications on brain-side affinity
The abovementioned topic falls into the category of “laterality“. That is, assigning certain mannerism and, speaking on a broader tangent, ways of being, to either the left or right side of our brains.
A ground-breaking discovery, which allowed psychologists to unravel a variety of hidden gems about humanity as a whole.
Scientists have found that the eyes of individuals, whose left hemisphere shows engagement, move towards the right (a subtle indicator of the thought process being related to the area of verbality).
Whilst individuals, whose right hemisphere is currently engaged, tend to move their mirrors of the soul towards the left (a subtle indicator of the thought process being related to the area of spatial reasoning).
Taking into account the beforementioned facts, it has been shown that humans, who are confronted with emotionally negative questions show a heightened activation of their right side of the brain. Their eyes tend to turn left.
Every human being processes emotions on a different part of the continuum, which shapes our emotional landscape. There is no such thing as a black-white lining between the emotional states of our mind.
It has been shown that individual differences regarding emotions amount to sometimes up to 3000%. Media-related ways of inducing either positive or negative emotions have proven that the levels of activity concerning certain departments of our brain are highly dependent on the respective individual. Showing one person a disgust-evoking clip, which results in a heightened activity in the right-prefrontal cortex – thus leading to negative emotions – may au contraire stimulate the left-prefrontal cortex – henceforth leading to positive emotions – in another homo sapiens. This gives the saying “One man’s joy is another man’s sorrow” a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?
3) Exploring our most important organ
Now that you have got a taste of what humanities most heralded, yet simultaneously most diverse, super-processor is capable of, I would like to get into the nit-grit of the brain. Speaking in terms of our emotional states, that is.
Before I move on, however, I am going to present to you a really simple overview about the functions of a few specific parts of the brain.
The frontal part of our hemispheres is heavily involved in tasks related to cognitive abilities. Planning, decision making, as well as understanding people are its primary functions.
The hippocampus is basically responsible for moving short-term impressions into our long-term memory. This part of our brain is also relevant in terms of spatial orientation.
This primal region of our brain is commonly associated with the registration, as well as the generation of fear. It also works in conjunction with the hippocampus, in order to form what is known as the “emotional memory”.
Its activities have been linked to the processing of information related to color, face and body recognition, word recognition and within-category identification.
This area of our brain has been shown to elicit specific responses regarding dopamine levels. It is commonly referred to as the “reward center” of our most important organ. It is involved in forming memories, both positive and negative, of salient environmental stimuli.
This area of our brain regulates our visual perception.
This structure processes somatic sensations. These are basically sensations from our body, such as touch and pain.
By the way, the origins of evolution in regard to our brain took their course at the brainstem. It evolved more than 500 million years ago and carries information from the body into the brain. It regulates vegetative processes of our body, such as blood pressure, breathing and our heartbeat. This part of the organ has been labeled as the “reptilian brain” since it basically constitutes the entire brain of present-day reptilians. Our ability to reason, which distinguishes us from instinct-driven animals, has evolved much later and is seated in the frontal regions of our left hemisphere.
Now that you have been equipped with the pickaxe of basic neuroscientific knowledge, it is time to dig up the hidden gems within our neuronal pathways and venture into the core of this article.
4) Emotions and the brain
Those who score high on this part of the emotional spectrum tend to shrug off setbacks, respectively take an active part in terms of fighting back and are therefore quite adept at recovering. While those who score low tend to get beaten into submission by life’s oftentimes grueling randomness – and may very slowly, if at all, recover.
Your prefrontal cortex plays a vital role in determining your overall resilience.
The higher the activity in your left prefrontal cortex, the higher your overall resilience to all sorts of negative influences.
On the other side, the higher the activity in your right prefrontal cortex, the lower your resilience.
By the way, heightened activity in the right prefrontal cortex has been linked to depression. A condition, which is defined as an inability to sustain positive emotions. Individuals who suffer from said malady experience a decreased sense of motivation, as well as a lackluster drive.
The left prefrontal cortex acts as some sort of inhibitor in regard to the amygdala. Its degree of partaking correlates with the speed concerning your ability to bounce back from bouts of adversary.
On social intuition
Those who are socially intuitive tend to be able to read cues in an effortless way – making them able to adapt to a plethora of given scenarios without breaking a sweat. Humans who are less than stellar in this department of our emotional palette tend to misinterpret the influx of socially-related signals and may, therefore, experience rejection on a regular basis. They may also act in an incoherent, nonchalant manner – completely unbeknownst to the respective individual, yet much to the dismay of those around them.
A lowered activity in the fusiform gyrus, as well as a high activity in the amygdala results in a lack of social intuition.
The amygdala is being quietened by Oxytocin – a hormone, which induces feelings of commitment and attachment. Said way of regulating your bodily functions has also been linked to maternal behavior. Besides, an increase in oxytocin also leads to feelings of calm and contentment.
On sensitivity to context
Individuals who score low in this area tend to act in an exceedingly irregular fashion when it comes to dealing with the hardships of life. Extreme responses to objectively harmless situations constitute the modus operandi of those who are “tuned out”. Humans with a high score are being haunted by an excessive focus on context brought about by their hyperactive hippocampus. A way of being, which is highly inductive in regard to the inhibition of emotional spontaneity – that is, taking into account a myriad of possibilities and moves in regard to the current context. A process which may very well render the respective human immobile. In terms of acting, that is – due to excessive fear of making a wrong move. Besides, those who are exceedingly focused on the given context may mold their present way of conductance in order to fit the current situation. At least according to their own interpretation. A charade, which may end up in said person doubting their own sincerity, as well as authenticity.
The strength of the connections between your hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex determines your degree of sensitivity to context.
The stronger said bounds are, the more “tuned in” you are, and vice versa.
Studies have shown that a loss of volume in regard to the hippocampus correlates with PTSD. For a sub-par hippocampus would de facto have trouble creating memories of the context in which a traumatic event has occurred. Posttraumatic stress disorder is an illness, commonly experienced by those, who have been to war. Individuals who suffer from said irregularity in terms of the mind, are prone to overreacting in regard to slightest inconsistencies in their immediate environment. Loud noises and the like may trigger this illness. The anterior hippocampus regulates behavioral inhibition, and an extremely low activity in this peculiar region is henceforth the reason for this type of memory-related loss of function.
Those who score particularly low in this area may fall under the category of “repressive defensiveness”. A peculiar aspect concerning the different types of personality, which is characterized by an acute lack of self-awareness. Said lack thereof results in them being completely oblivious to what is going on inside of them. Sufferers may rate immediate happenings, which can be objectively classified as disturbing, in their everyday being, as not perturbing at all. It has been shown that these individuals fool themselves, for their internal states speak another language – their heart rate and skin conductance (which measures sweating and can henceforth be used as an indicator for anxiety), were way higher than usual.
A heightened activity in the insula leads to higher self-awareness.
The insula is the part of the brain, which contains a viscerotopic map of your body. Your organs, as well as specific sensations related to them, have been mapped by this region (mapped in the sense of there being distinct clusters of neurons, which receive specific signals from certain areas of our body). Said mapping not only applies to physical sensations, but also to emotions.
Outlook determines your innate way of conceptualizing our reality. We tend to label outward influences as either good or bad, since we are highly subjective creatures. For the foundation of our everyday course of action has been forged by our ancestors in the form of DNA. Yet the different stages of this biological construct have been crafted by external factors, which have thusly shaped the person that you are today.
As previously explained, a heightened activity in the left-prefrontal cortex poses as the hallmark of individuals, whose emotions are mostly in the realm of positivity, and vice versa.
The lackluster drive, tenacity, persistence, as well as somewhat ensuing inability to sustain positive emotions, which characterizes those who suffer from depression, has its origins in the so-called “reward circuit“.
An area of our brain, which basically poses as an interplay between the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum, as well as the prefrontal cortex.
The ventral striatum, which persists below the cortical surface in the middle of our brain has been shown to lighten up, whenever individuals anticipate the attainment of something rewarding or delightful. A specific cluster of neurons, which is located within the beforementioned structure – namely the nucleus accumbens – is imperative in regard to generating feelings of motivation, as well as producing a certain sense of reward.
Said area is crammed with neurons, which either release or pick up the neurotransmitter “dopamine”. A hormone, which is responsible for feelings of well-being, joy, as well as partaking in the creation of desire. This biochemical messenger also accounts for the famous “runners high”.
Homo sapiens, who fall on the low end of said dimension are literally incapable of sustaining positive feelings for more than a few minutes. Generally speaking, individuals who suffer from depression were capable of inducing, but ultimately unable to sustain activation in the reward circuitry and the prefrontal cortex.
Recent findings in animals have suggested that an activation of the opiate receptors in the nucleus accumbens stimulate an adjacent brain region – the ventral pallidum, which may be responsible for encoding hedonic pleasure.
Said findings imply that the activity in the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex are predeterminants for one’s ability to sustain positive emotions. The higher said activity in the n. accumbens (which correlates with the signaling process in regard to the prefrontal cortex), the better the overall outlook of the respective individual.
We are being constantly bombarded by a plethora of signal-related influxes from our immediate environment. Individuals who score high on this dimension can be classified as “focused”, whilst people, who rank low, can be classified as “unfocused”.
a) Enhancement of signals in attended channels
× i.e. reading a newspaper and enhancing the visual signals concerned with interpreting the image of the characters in relation to, let’s say, the visual signals carrying the images of our hands holding said pieces of paper.
b) Inhibition of signals in ignored channels
× i.e. being engaged with somebody in a conversation amidst a busy environment and actively decreasing the signal input of irrelevant noises.
There are two relevant forms of attention with regard to emotional style:
a) Selective (“focused”) attention
× A conscious focus on specific features in our proximate environment, whilst simultaneously ignoring distractions.
b) Open, non-judgemental awareness (“unfocused”/”diffused”)
× Our way of taking in a myriad of signals from our immediate environment – without getting hung up on any one single stimulus, which would be detrimental to other signals.
It has been shown that those, who possess a higher activity in regard to the visual, as well as the somatosensory cortex, exhibit a heightened propensity towards selective attention.
At this part, I would like to point out a necessary precursor in regard to understand our brain: One shall not perceive our brains’ regions as single, independent parts of a grand machinery, but rather as individual cogs, which work in conjunction with each other.
So as to extend said train of thought in regard to this specific subject matter, one needs to take into account the partaking of our prefrontal cortex. This area of our brain is imperative when it comes to either increasing, or decreasing the influx of wanted, or unwanted signals.
With that being said, I would like to move even further down the line of neuroscientific research and point out an interesting, as well as highly important find concerning the underlying mechanisms of our attentional span.
Data from the EEG (a modern means of analyzing electrical signals of our brain), has lead scientists to the conclusion that our mental activity can be entrained to respond in a specific manner to external stimuli. Phase-locking in the realm of selective focus can be poignantly described as an increased synchronization of electrical signals from the prefrontal regions. Henceforth ensuing a highly stable and precise utilization of your attentional abilities.
Neuronal basis for our attention
Scientists have discovered a peculiar event-related potential, namely the “P300“, which has been linked to our attentional state of mind.
“Event-related” basically means, that whenever a specific stimulus (the “event”) is being picked up, an electrical signal kicks in and may very well express itself in a cascade of neuronal activity patterns.
P300 relates to a positive (thus the “P”) response, which occurs approximately 300 milliseconds after the onset of an event.
Let me illustrate the correlation between said potential and your attentional response:
If I were to show you a stream, which consists of letters and numbers (such as 8, J, K, 3, L, …) and your investment in terms of the extent to which you were to focus on the first number, was too high, you would most likely wind up overlooking the second number (3).
This modus operandi constitutes the hallmark of a focused individual. A way of dealing with the task at hand brought about by strong phase-locking of your prefrontal cortex in regard to external stimuli. Moreover so in conjunction with a moderate activation of the P300 signal.
On the other end of the extreme – the unfocused one – the prefrontal cortex’ phase-locking-activity is quite limited, whereas the P300 signal is either extremely weak or extremely strong.
Open, non-judgemental awareness requires an equilibrium in regard to the beforementioned signal, so as to be on the receiving end of all stimuli. This goes hand in hand with your avoidance of the mental trap, which the very act of getting stuck on a particularly engaging external input constitutes.
It is of utmost importance to understand that cognition is tightly interwoven with our emotional state of mind.
Feelings do shape our reality after all. Positive emotions allow us to thrive in our everyday conductance inasmuch as they heighten our energy levels, enable us to bond with other individuals, and aid our perseverance in terms of staying on track whilst tackling a strenuous task.
Whereas negative emotions may express themselves in the form of a lackluster drive, antisocial behavior, and a sheer inability to absorb new pieces of information. Besides, they also wreak havoc at a subliminal level, for negativity induces the death of neurons. Leading to an overall decline of mental capabilities, if one has to endure this abnormal state of being for a prolonged period of time.
Mental processes and emotions overlap, which implies that all brain regions, even those as seemingly minuscule as the visual and auditory cortices, are altered by this ingrained spectrum of mental prowess.
Having said that, I would like to offer you a few more insights related to our emotional spectrum.
5) Abnormal states of mind
Our brain is responsible for much more than our emotions. Its functionality may be obstructed from the get-go by means of genetic predisposition, as well as external influences, which can alter our state of being in the realm of epigenetics. That is, turning on, as well as turning off specific switches, which may induce a set of changes in our overall mannerisms and henceforth pave the way for maneuvering through the unpredictable deep ends of our fluid existence.
The variability of aggressiveness
Your excessive aggression (or lack thereof) may actually serve as a precursor in regard to whether you end up in Alcatraz or enjoy a sunny afternoon with your kids amidst the cozy setting of your self-built home.
A study regarding an extended Dutch family, which included fourteen men who had undertaken impulsive, aggression-related crimes, such as arson and attempted rape, concluded that all individuals exhibited the identical form of a gene located on the X chromosome. This gene produces an enzyme, which is known as “MAOA” – or monoamine oxidase A. It metabolizes neurotransmitters (these are, bluntly stated, chemicals, which activate other neurons) such as Serotonin, Norepinephrine, and dopamine.
The long, common version of this gene generates lots of MAOA, whilst the deviating form results in low amounts of this particular enzyme.
The long version induces a faster breakdown of those neurotransmitters, whereas the short version results in a slower metabolization.
It has been postulated that the short end of the stick, in relation to the said piece of our DNA, enables neurotransmitters to remain longer in our brain. This may have explained the erratic behavior of the abovementioned dutch citizens.
Follow-up studies in regard to the implications of determinism have arrived at different conclusions.
I would like to expand on this topic by pointing out the fact that a short version of this gene does not automatically result in a more violent individual. It acts as a predetermining factor towards a shorter fuse, but what ultimately leads to an unsightly outburst of innate aggression, is the environment.
Think of it in this way: Our genetic makeup is akin to a library. A grandiose variety of written books, whose selection depends on the respective individuals’ field of interest, who wishes to borrow a specific work. There are plenty of books – a fact, which, however, does not automatically predispose them towards being read. To sum it up: the sheer existence of a gene does not imply its expression – it may be expressed by means of environmental influences.
By the way – the temperamental differentiation between bold, and shy individuals depends on the degree of behavioral inhibition.
Humans, who can be labeled as being bold, show a lower behavioral inhibition. This results in a heightened left-brain activity in the prefrontal cortex.
Those, who are deemed shy, tend to be shackled by a higher behavioral inhibition, which is usually marked by a heightened right-brain activity in the prefrontal cortex.
In order to further illustrate the point of synergy regarding our body and mind, I will offer you a brief overview about 3 mental disorders.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
The prefrontal cortex also plays a vital role in the lives of citizens, who suffer from ADHD. This disorder exists in 3 forms. The DSM (which is basically a standardized catalog of criteria, necessary to classify mental disorders) has marked all three therefrom by inattention, by hyperactivity/impulsivity or by both in an equal way.
Inattention affects you insofar, as that it hinders your ability to focus on a given task. It may give rise to thoughtless mistakes, which impact the quality of your work.
Hyperactivity can cause individuals to indulge in excessive fidgeting, obtrusive talking, or simply act in a generally indelicate manner.
Impulsivity expresses itself by a difficulty to wait for your turn, as well as the irrepressible need to butt into others’ undertakings, and the lack of self-restraint in the antics of answering unfinished questions.
The inferior prefrontal cortex, which acts as an impulse-inhibition center, shows less activation in those who have manifested this mental malady.
On a side note, scientists from the University of Toronto have also discovered worse synchrony, in regard to phase-locking, in the brain of adults diagnosed with ADHD.
Another mental illness, which is characterized by hyperactivity in the orbital frontal cortex (an area, whose primary function is to take notice, whenever something is missing), and the striatum (an area, which receives signals from both the amygdala and the orbital frontal cortex). The interplay of those two areas has been fittingly termed “worry circuit“.
OCD basically urges the sufferer to display certain ritualistic behaviors, respectively compulsions, such as repeatedly making sure that the door to their home has been closed, or washing their hands exorbitantly often. Obtrusive, undesirable, and discomforting thoughts are also quite common.
The art of mindfulness (a topic, which I will cover in great detail in a future post), poses a form of meditation. It has been shown to raise the activity in the left prefrontal cortex. This creates a positive-feedback loop, which in turn combats OCD’s negative neuronal implications.
Overactivity in distinct areas of the frontal cortex, more precisely regions commonly linked to anticipation, serve as the underlying causes concerning this kind of illness.
It is characterized by a heavy tendency towards excessive rumination, as well as a general habit of taking every small mishap to the extreme.
Thus spiraling down the void of dysfunctional thinking – blowing every negative setback out of proportion, whilst simultaneously reinforcing said neuronal pathways by means of neuroplasticity. Henceforth trapping the victim in a negative downward spiral of emotions.
6) Conclusion/Related reading
Understanding our emotional spectrum, as well its implications on our way of being is highly important if you wish to prosper. We need to realize that the health of our body is tightly aligned with the health of our mind. It is thus highly conducive, in terms of our general well-being, to alleviate the functionality, as well as strength, of both health-related departments of our vessel.
If you wish to learn more about emotions, as well as take an assignment concerning your personal stance on the emotional spectrum, I recommend getting the following book:
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