The emotional brain: kidnappings and emotional outbursts

The emotional brain: kidnappings and emotional outbursts

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The human brain is made up of several different zones that evolved at different times. When in the brain of our ancestors their capacity increased in a new area, nature generally did not discard the old ones, instead retaining them, forming the most recent section above them.


  • 1 Our primitive brain
  • 2 The limbic system and its role in emotions
  • 3 Neocortex and emotions
  • 4 Kidnappings and emotional outbursts
  • 5 Anger and aggressiveness

Our primitive brain

These primitive and instinctive parts of the human brain continue to operate today as in the first reptiles that inhabited the Earth.

Many experiments have shown that much of human behavior originates in deeply buried areas of the brain, the same ones that once directed the vital acts of our ancestors.

According to neurophysiologist Paul MacLean of the National Institute of Mental Health of the USA. "We still have in our heads brain structures very similar to those of the horse and the crocodile."

Our primitive brain goes back more than two hundred million years of evolution, and still directs a large part of our mechanisms to defend ourselves, woo, search for homes or select efficient leaders. He is responsible for many of our attitudes, customs and even rites.

The limbic system and its role in emotions

The limbic system, also called the middle brain, is the portion of the brain located immediately below the cerebral cortex, and includes important centers such as the thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, the cerebral tonsil (we should not confuse them with those in the throat).

In the human being, these are the centers of affectivity, it is here that the different emotions are processed and the man experiences intense sorrows, anguishes and joys

The role of the amygdala as a center of emotion processing is unquestionable today. Patients with the injured tonsil are no longer able to recognize the expression of a face or if a person is happy or sad. The monkeys to which the amygdala was excised manifested an extremely altered social behavior: they lost sensitivity to the complex rules of social behavior in their pack. Maternal behavior and emotional reactions to other animals were clearly impaired.

Researchers J. F. Fulton and D. F. Jacobson, of Yale University, also provided evidence that learning capacity and memory require an intact tonsil: they put chimpanzees in front of two bowls of food. In one of them there was an appetizing snack, the other was empty. Then they covered the bowls. After a few seconds the animals were allowed to take one of the closed containers. The healthy animals took the bowl containing the appetizing snack without hesitation, while the chimpanzees with the injured tonsil chose at random; the appetizing bite had not awakened in them any excitation of the tonsil and that is why they did not remember it either.

The limbic system is in constant interaction with the cerebral cortex. A high-speed signal transmission allows the limbic system and the neocortex to work together, and this is what explains why we can have control over our emotions.

Neocortex and emotions

Approximately one hundred million years ago the first superior mammals appeared. The evolution of the brain took an exponential leap. Above the medulla and the limbic system, nature placed the neocortex, or the so-called rational brain.

The cerebral cortex is not only the most accessible area of ​​the brain: it is also the most distinctively human. Most of our languagee, think or plan, imagination, creativity and capacity for abstraction, comes from this brain region.

Thus, the neocortex enables us not only to solve algebra equations, learn a foreign language or study the Theory of Relativity, it also gives our emotional life a new dimension. Now behaviors such as love or revenge, altruism or selfishness, art and morals, sensitivity or enthusiasm go far beyond the basic models of perception and spontaneous behavior of the limbic system.

On the other hand, it has been observed in various experiments performed with patients who have the damaged brain, many sensations would be canceled without the participation of the emotional brain. By itself, the neocortex would only be a good high performance computer.

Kidnappings and emotional outbursts

It is important to recognize the reactions that each one of the emotions provokes in the body, and also to establish its origin, because as it will be seen, they allow us to recognize the so-called “kidnappings of the emotional center” or “emotional outbursts”.

Normally, when a stimulus enters through our senses, information passes to the thalamus (a primitive region of the brain), where it is translated neurologically, and most of it then passes to the cerebral cortex, where our logical and rational part works. It is the cortex who is responsible for making the decision before the sensory stimulus. However, not all information passes directly from the thalamus to the bark. A smaller part of the information passes directly from the thalamus to the emotional center, which allows us to make an instantaneous and instinctive decision before our rational part manages to process the information.

Is Instant and automatic relationship between the thalamus and emotional centers is what originates the "emotional kidnapping" or "emotional outburst", and the result is that we act before thinking, sometimes for our benefit and sometimes for our damage.

In emotional outbursts there are also expressive phenomena such as screams and sobs. The usual affective tone is disturbed, the rhythm of the thoughts is disturbed and the control of the acts is lost in some cases. In very violent emotions, repressed feelings are released, primitive modes reappear where the subject can express swear words and even perform brutal gestures.

So that, the rational cortex cannot exercise control when an extreme emotion presents itself. What it can determine is how long this emotion will last.

Anger and aggressiveness

A basic emotional aspect is aggression and anger. According to some authors, what triggers anger is the feeling of threat, both physical and symbolic (that is, one that can affect our self esteem or self love). Sensing this threat will produce a limbic response (an activation of a part of the brain, the limbic system), producing a release of a chemical that releases our brain (catecholamines), which will give us the energy needed to fight or flee. On the other hand, another energy source will be produced, thanks to the amygdala, which will persist for longer than the initial chemical discharge and that will provide the appropriate physical tone to the response. This generalized activation can last for hours and even days, keeping the emotional brain predisposed to arousal, that is, in a state of hypersensitivity., which explains why some people seem predisposed to get angry once they have been provoked or have been slightly excited.

All this gives us a clearer vision of why when, for example, a working mother, who has to get up early to take the children to school, go to her office, put up with her boss, go back home, do to eat, go for the children after school, feed them, etc ... it is more likely that at the end of the day I can not stand it anymore and start yelling at them for the simple fact that they are watching TV lying on the floor .


LeDoux, J.E. (1999).Emotional brain. Barcelona: Ariel / Planet