The historical rationale for all of this was based upon long-standing assumptions about human emotion, which so it was maintained, was centred in one locus of the brain. However – and increasingly – people began to ask interesting questions such as; why is it the case that deep rhythmic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and visualisation in a relaxed and calming place and other self-help strategies such as yoga, can actually calm us down emotionally and help to reinstate a more acceptable and increasingly pleasant sense of order and control? Gradually the truth began to dawn: any division which we conveniently and artificially impose when we talk about cognition and emotion and bodily function is, in fact, just that; i. e. convenient but artificial. Indeed, it has become increasingly evident that although emotions are ‘fired’ from a common ‘launching pad’, known as the limbic centre of the brain. We shall come to see how, given the present status of knowledge that both brain and body combine complexly to “fuel” our emotions and therefore possess an interdependent character and relationship.
As a young undergraduate and then post-graduate student, I was taught (what now, on the basis of sound research has been almost entirely abandoned) namely, that emotions were almost all mental activities, of which one or two such as fear, admittedly did elicit a physical response. Moreover, what became known as the “psychopharmacological revolution” – bringing as it did to centre stage, such well-known drugs as Diazepam, Lithium and Prozac – in a way and for a time, reinforced this now abandoned belief. What we now know, is that far from being localised in the limbic brain, emotion is more likely to be the product of multiple brain and body systems which are in fact distributed and diversely accommodated almost anywhere and all over. We have known for a very long time that as well as possessing a “sympathetic” (arousal) division of what we have already referred to as the autonomic nervous system, man possesses a corresponding “parasympathetic” (calming) division, which is also responsive to suggestion and behavioural events. If you have read the earlier blogs on coping with serious and life-threatening illness, you will recall how we considered and discussed well-researched (tried) varieties of “calming down” and “taking control” procedures, together with the power that suggestion (and even auto-suggestion, i.e. to oneself, delivered in an appropriate and convincing manner can have, in restoring that vital sense of inner control and calm. However – and – for the moment – let me say here just a further word to the effect that our emotion and emotional responses are by no means totally governed and controlled by entirely mental activities such as intense fear, or joy or anger. We have also seen and know from everyday experience, how these elicit certain physical responses such as trembling, sweating etc. which are inextricably linked to cognitive (learning via thinking, reasoning) activity.
For example, the “bad news” received from one’s consultant, is almost immediately absorbed into a context of our knowledge, beliefs and opinions about such illness. Thus, emotion and reason (or feeling and thinking) are inseparable and cannot be isolated or localized (as was once thought and indeed, taught). In consequence, we can only be in overall control once we have accounted for our impulses, gut feelings, fears and intuitions and accepted that that is the way we really are. Not infrequently, if we were but to pause and reflect, i.e. to allow reason into the frame so to speak, the outcome might well be different. The very keystone of coping is quite simply the capacity to recognize our feelings for what they are; for as we shall see, failing to do so will inevitably leave us under their spell and at their mercy. In reality, it is a kind of empathy· but on this occasion applied to self. It calls for a similar body of coping skills to that which we direct to others in distress, mostly through non-verbal channels of communication, facial expression, voice, attentiveness, where appropriate, touch. Now, as we face some crisis within – and possibly never more so – we seek it for ourselves, in the attempt to respond to, perhaps the greatest challenge of our lives.
What this amounts to and what this entire website is, in part, very much about is simply this: you can continue to be you, laughing when you want to laugh, crying as you wish to cry, talking your innermost feelings through and out, all of this, if only (and sometimes it is the only and safest course) to your self. In everything you do and say – again, if only to yourself – be open and honest, always looking toward the light. If and when there is no light, look to the direction from which you expect it to come. Always be ready for and anticipate it arrival. Moreover, look around you for and absorb every shred of guidance, help and inspiration, whether it is no more than a nod or passing smile or word of encouragement, or that veritable jewel of – say – the touch of a little child’s hand. In anything and everything, find and fasten on to the smallest reason to take heart, if only because you and all of mankind with whom you share this gift of life, are co-possessors of an incredible heritage, ever inspiring hope and pointing the way forward. For the truth is that all of the above will stimulate and promote the appropriate ‘on board’ chemistry, just as it will thereafter translate it into thoughts and deeds promoting feelings of enhanced well being.
Postscript. I have decided to insert this additional note here because it occurs to me that you may well be interested to learn a little more about brain function in the event of emergency and emotion-laden occurrences involving the ANS. Information/signals come in through one (or more) of the primary senses, e.g. vision, hearing, smell etc. to a relay station in the limbic (or mammalian brain) known as the “thalamus” (Gk for “room” or chamber). Some of that signal takes the short route to an important structure, also in the mid-brain known as the “amygdala”, which is the brain’s ‘emotional computer’ and also plays a complex role in our overall fear response. (For further information see
The amygdala –aided by input from another key structure in this part of the brain, namely the “hippocampus·,· also sends signals to the neo-cortex or new brain. It is at this point that the decision is taken whether or not to alert the ANS. (If we are witnessing our “bull in a field but with a handy nearby gate, the new brain will decide not to refer it on. However, where it is so referred, messages will go out to the adrenal glands and to other structures deep within the old, i.e. reptilian brain or brainstem. An instant later, the sympathetic division of the ANS is driving up blood pressure, pulse and respiration rate; and adrenaline and cortisol, i.e. the stress hormone are preparing that individual for fight or
In certain circumstances, e.g. engine failure or irregular activity on-board during an airplane flight, signals go directly into the hypothalamus (Gk for lower room or basement and situated below the thalamus). Unlike responses requiring a decision to be made, this response bypasses the neo-cortex in order that direct action may immediately ensue. The hypothalamus also appears to direct and regulate the release of a substance known as Corticotrophin-Releasing Factor (CRF), which heightens vigilance and makes further contact with the adrenals via the pituitary gland at the base of the brain (the body’s master gland) concerning further release of adrenalin and cortisol. The hormones secreted by the pituitary gland, affect every other gland in the body. Because of its consummate role in body-brain regulation, the hypothalamus has sometimes been called “the brain of the brain”. (C)SB.
- A complex but genuine capacity to recognise and respond to emotion in others.
- The amygdala is an almond shaped structure in the limbic system which processes emotions independently of the events with which they are associated. Once the amygdala attaches this emotional significance, it is rated by and stored in the hippocampus.- Greek for “sea horse”- because of its shape and appearance which functions as a complex memory bank.