Educating Our Emotions

By Chris Chittenden

The research done in the field of human emotions over the past decade has been staggering. One of the catchphrases that has emerged from this research has been "emotional intelligence". The idea behind emotional intelligence is an ability to manage our emotions and, in doing so, get the most from ourselves and engage effectively with others that will see us be most successful in life. To understand why this is important, we must first understand the roles our emotions play in daily life.

To do this, we can look at how our brain functions. When biologists observe emotions, they look for internal brain and physiological activity they can measure and relate to an inferred emotional event. There is a wealth of knowledge about which parts of the brain engage with other parts in relation to certain human action, including the domain of human emotion. However, there is not as much understanding of just how and why the brain does what it does.

Paul MacLean is attributed with the development the "triune brain" model. Basically, this model purports that an animal's brain can develop in three distinct stages, but that only human beings have so far developed the third stage responsible for language and rational thought.

The first stage of development is the "reptilian brain" and this is found in all animals. This is the small brain stem found at the top of the spinal cord and is responsible for the regulation of our basic life processes such as body temperature control, blood flow, breathing and so on. The second stage of development is the "limbic system", which MacLean saw as the emotional centre of the brain. The third and final stage of development was the "neo-cortex" - the site of reasoning, language and logic.

The seat of our emotions in the limbic system is the "amygdala", which is a small almond shaped part of the brain responsible for our basic emotional memories. Through the amygdala, we put emotional meaning to what we observe. There are two amygdalas, one on either side of the brain. When our system is unexpectedly perturbed, the amygdala is the first part of our brain to respond, reacting faster than the neo-cortex and putting an initial emotional meaning to what has happened. In other words, we emote before we reason. For example, you may have heard of the "flight or fight" response. When we are faced with danger, our immediate response is self-preservation and it is the amygdala that initiates the chemical changes in the body that ready us to engage or escape the danger. In the early stages of the evolution of human beings, this was a critical aspect of survival as they were often faced with life and death situations. Today, human beings are generally not faced with such dangers on a daily basis, yet the amygdala still acts as our emotional sentinel.

Whereas the amygdala provides for an impulsive and self-preserving response at a basic level, it appears that the parts of the neo-cortex known as the "pre-frontal lobes", are responsible for emotional management. The pre-frontal lobes are accountable for the activity that rationally assesses our immediate emotional response as dictated by the amygdala and tempers it if appropriate. In most of our emotional life, it is the pre-frontal lobes and not the amygdala that holds sway. However, this is not always the case. For instance, when people fly into a rage it is a sign of an out-of-control amygdala, where it has released so many emotional messages to the body that our ability to manage our emotions is severely impaired. Daniel Goleman, who wrote "Emotional Intelligence", terms these events, "Emotional Hijackings".

The key point in all of this is that, we emote first and then our self-talk manages our emotions. If we have an angry response and our self-talk fuels that with thoughts like "They should not have done that!", "They will pay for this!", the emotion quickly builds on itself and we find ourselves taking action we may well regret.

Managing our emotions first requires us to recognise them when they occur. By doing so, we are able to intervene with our self-talk and calm some emotional responses in order to take the most effective actions in life. So if you would like to have greater control over your emotional life, get more in touch with what emotions you feel and when they occur. Then, look for strategies to ensure your self-talk does not take you into emotional places you do not want to go, but rather helps you maintain positive emotional spaces.

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© 2004 Chris Chittenden