If we had to put out a want ad for our brains, we would be hard pressed to find a replacement. After all, our brains have a lot of responsibilities. They help us interpret events, regulate what our bodies are up to, problem solve, keep track of memories, maintain our senses, etc. And if that wasn't enough, our brains drive our feelings. So when you're upset and someone tells you that your feelings are just in your head and you should get yourself together, they're right on the first count and wrong on the second. It is easier said than done.
So why is that? Just how do our brains and feelings interact? Are they partners in crime that work together to enhance our well-being? Or do they fight it out for control? Read on to learn 10 ways your brain and feelings influence each other.
10. Neurotransmitters Are Our Best Friends
So much for cell phones, computers and other technology, the masterminds of communications are inside of us -- we call them neurotransmitters. Here's how they work: Our brains are packed full of nerve cells called neurons. These neurons "pass notes" to each other to control everything about us. Neurotransmitters are basically the Pony Express of our brains; they carry these messages from neuron to neuron [source: National Institute on Drug Abuse].
These messages help determine our emotions, or feelings, such as our motivation to perform a task, ability to focus and our positive or negative mood. When we have imbalances in our neurotransmitter levels, our feelings can get out of whack. In fact, such imbalances have been connected to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit challenges.
The good news is that we can do our part to try to keep our neurotransmitter levels in check. The majority of the neurotransmitters busily working away inside our brains are made up of amino acids, the components of proteins. By eating a well-balanced diet, you can help keep your brain stocked [source: The Franklin Institute].
9. Different Neurotransmitters Govern Different Emotions
When we think of a symphony orchestra, we know that a big group of musicians playing different instruments is working together to create one beautiful song. We can liken the neurotransmitters in our head to the pianist, violinist and percussionists. They each have their own job to keep our brains humming along. In fact, we have several dozen different neurotransmitters working inside of us to regulate specific emotions. Let's take a look at the three most commonly referred to neurotransmitters and some of their tasks:
- Serotonin: Serotonin is in charge of calming us down and helping keep us cheerful or in a good mood.
- Dopamine: Do you have any "get up and go?" Do you feel ready to tackle the day? Thank your supply of dopamine for helping you face life's challenges with energy and confidence.
- Norepinephrine: This neurotransmitter happily disperses concentration, alertness and motivation. [source: The Franklin Institute]
8. Through Stored Memories, Your Brain Drives Your Fears
Our brains have fear down pat. When they sense danger, they alert us by sending messages throughout our bodies. Our blood pressure rises, we may sweat and our heartbeat accelerates. This is all preparing us to respond to the danger accordingly. Of course, this response can be quite helpful if it prepares us to avoid getting hurt. However, it can also hinder us if the fear causes us to avoid everyday situations, such as public speaking or social situations. Sometimes, our fears can turn into full-blown phobias.
So how do we actually develop a phobia? In some instances, our phobias can result from memories of a terrible experience, say a car crash. This is due, in part, to a very small part of the brain called the amygdala. When we have such an experience, the amygdala says, "Wow, that required a strong emotional reaction! Let's store that one up and prepare in case we're ever in a similar situation again." Then, when you think about that life event or experience, your amygdala tells your body to be afraid [source: TeensHealth].
7. Stress Can Provide Lasting Damage to Your Brain
Often, stress can be something we try to ignore. After all, who has time to think about stress if you are busy getting dinner on the table, staying late at work, striving to be top of the class or coping with an ailing loved one? In these instances, our self-care can drop to the bottom of the list. Stress doesn't cause any damage anyway, right? Wrong.
When you are under chronic stress, your brain receives a continual overload of a damaging enzyme. This enzyme heads straight to the neurons in your prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex sits right at the front of your brain and controls such vital functions as complex thinking and problem solving. The more damage done to the prefrontal cortex, the more difficult it can be for people under chronic stress to notice the world around them and focus. What's worse is that this part of our brain is the first that starts to decline as we age, so keeping its health in check is important. That said, our brain has a great ability to heal itself. By figuring out how to cut down on stress, your prefrontal cortex can start mending [source: The Washington Times].
6. Stress Can Get Us Caught in a Rut
In the previous section, you learned about some of the lasting damage stress can have on our brains. Findings out of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minho in Portugal take the effects of stress further. Researchers, through studying stressed rats, showed that restlessness can also lead to changes in our brain that cause us to continue to repeat the same habits over and over again, get stuck in a rut and just plain give up [source: Angier]. This certainly helps explain why the best of us continue to stay in damaging relationships, jobs that aren't a fit for us, etc. Our brains are telling us to stay put -- that this is how we should cope when we really should bolt.
Have no fear, though: The researchers didn't leave us hanging with no hope, should we get stressed out. When removed from a stressful situation, the researchers' rats were able to heal over time from the anxiety they endured during the research. They became functioning rats yet again [source: Angier].
The lesson to learn is that we sometimes need our own researchers -- be it a parent, teacher or friend -- to take charge of coaxing us away from a rut and moving on.
5. Our Mood May Affect How Much Pain We Feel
Have you ever watched a small child fall down at the playground? Did the pain that child might have experienced seem to be shoved aside? After all, there was too much fun to be had on the swings and slide. Or, how many of us have ignored a feeling of pain because we were having just too much fun at the moment to be hurt?
As it turns out, our mood may actually affect just how much pain we feel. As Dr. Rick Nauert reports for PsychCentral, our mind is one powerful player in how we perceive pain. He describes a study from the Université de Montréal that links how we are feeling at the moment with how much pain we feel from an external influence. In the study, those people who were pumping their minds with happy thoughts by looking at nice pictures felt less pain from shocks than their counterparts who brought their moods down with negative images [source: Nauert].
4. The Brain May Determine How Happy We Are
A state of bliss or happiness can be quite elusive. However, increasing evidence points to what is going on inside our brains leads to our positive or negative outlook on life. In addition to environmental influences, depression and our outlooks on life appear to be quite complex and affected by a whole suite of factors. For example, it appears that which side of the front of our brain -- the prefrontal cortex -- does more work manning our emotions than the other can determine how positive or negative we are [source: Discover].
In addition, our state of happiness -- or even depression -- doesn't seem to just be tied to what parts of the brain do the heavy lifting. Brain chemicals have a lot to do with it, as well. In fact, recent studies show that a breakdown in our brain's chemical systems can contribute to depression. In one example, researchers out of the University of Michigan were able to link depression with a decreased number of brain receptors in charge of latching onto serotonin. If you recall earlier in this article, the neurotransmitter serotonin was linked with cheerfulness, making this finding understandable [source: National Institute of Mental Health].
3. Cerebral Hemispheres Keep Our Feelings in Check
Each part of our brain is there by design and has its role, but one part takes up a mighty chunk. The cerebrum accounts for a whopping 85 percent of our brain's weight. It controls our thinking and a lot of our muscle movement [source: KidsHealth].
The cerebrum is divided into two cerebral hemispheres that work together to manage the most challenging of our mental tasks. The right hemisphere takes care of our spatial thinking and the left our language. Together, they also take a part in managing our emotions. However, scientists have recently discovered that the "together" part of managing our emotions is more important than previously thought. It appears that the right hemisphere is always on the lookout for negative emotions. When it spots one coming on, it sounds the alarm for the left hemisphere to figure out what to do. Researchers have now shown that when one hemisphere experiences damage, say through a stroke, the other side can't hang on its own. This may result in having emotions on extreme ends of the spectrum -- such as a negative outlook or over-calculated optimism or anxiety or fearlessness -- depending on the side of the brain that is damaged [source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke].
2. Brains Love a Real Chemical Romance
For all the romantics out there who believe in quickly falling head over heels in love, there is research to support you. In fact, research has shown that the actual process our brains go through when falling in love takes just a fifth of a second [source: Nauert].
So what does that actually mean? What is happening inside our brains to create feelings of love? Researchers at Syracuse University point toward the release of chemicals -- such as the neurotransmitter dopamine discussed earlier in this article -- that cause the euphoria associated with love [source: Nauert].
And although the release of a chemical like dopamine produces those feelings of love and elation, research out of the State University of New York at Stony Brook shows that love may be both an emotion and a calculated move. Imaging of the brain during a study of students in love showed that feelings of love can be traced to those emotion-pumping chemicals and also a part of the brain connected with our goals and motivation. In this case, that goal is as old as time -- producing offspring [source: Fisher].
1. Drugs Become the Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
When it comes to illegal drugs, our brains have mastered addiction -- and that's bad news for those individuals who go down the wrong path. Most illegal drugs act on the brain in the same way; they send neurotransmitters associated with pleasure pumping into our brain. In essence, this disguises a bad drug as something good and teaches our brain to want more. Unfortunately, the more a user takes, the more that person's brain requires to achieve that same rewarding feeling, getting them more and more addicted to the drug. And as that person requires more chemicals to achieve pleasure, life without the drug can be one plagued with depression or a state of lifelessness. This is because the brain can't naturally create that drug-induced state that has become second nature [source: National Institute on Drug Abuse].
Lots More Information
- Nervous System Pictures
- 10 Amazing Advancements in Neuroscience
- Cognitive Neuroscience Puzzles
- Nervous System Puzzles
- Body Works: Brain Quiz
- Angier, Natalie. ''Brain Is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop.'' The New York Times. Aug. 17, 2009. (Dec. 7, 2010) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/science/18angier.html
- ''Being Afraid.'' KidsHealth. Nov. 2007. (Dec. 7, 2010) http://kidshealth.org/kid/feeling/emotion/afraid.html
- Benkoff, Amanda. ''Zinc Cold Remedies: Are They Safe and Effective -- Who Nose?'' Clinical Correlations. February 11, 2010. (Nov. 2, 2010) http://www.clinicalcorrelations.org/?p=2321
- ''Brain Damage Disrupts Emotions and Mood.'' National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. May 5, 1992. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.ninds.nih.gov/news_and_events/news_articles/pressrelease_braindamage_050592.htm
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