The Brain: A User’s Guide to Emotions

On February 18, 2014
Everyone has experienced emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear, anger, pride, embarrassment and envy. But do we know  how we construct our emotional experiences?
Despite all the advances in brain neuroscience, only a fraction of the brain’s power is understood. Neuroscientists also explore the workings of the brain, especially into the topic of emotions and they are learning more about how the brain controls emotions and how it emotionally flexible an organ it can be. Already, geographic areas of the brain can be divided into emotional and cognitive divisions.
The following infographic provides information on how the different parts of the brain contribute to human behavior and emotion. In addition, the six emotional styles (resilience, outlook, self-awareness, social interactions, attention, and sensitivity to context) also shape how the brain can retrain and retool itself in different situations.

The Brain: A User's Guide to Emotions
Source: The Brain: A User’s Guide to Emotions

A View From Above the Brain

  • Cerebrum – Houses the parts of the brain that control and relate to emotions
  • Right hemisphere – Responsible for emotional and artistic expression as well as most functions on the left side of the body
  • Frontal lobe – Masterminds complex mental processes including emotions
  • Temporal lobe – Processes sounds and emotional responses, provides visual perception and maintains certain functions associated with memory
  • Limbic system – Controls primitive, survival-based emotions
  • Prefrontal cortex – Responsible for abstract analysis, cognitive analysis and the exercise of judgment

Cross-Section of the Brain

  • Amygdala – Acts as the emotional processing center of the brain, responding to stimuli, especially danger like a built-in alarm system. Aids in perception of emotions in others.
  • Hypothalamus – Influences emotional responses as part of the limbic system, regulates hormone secretion
  • Hippocampus – Stores and retrieves memories; processes stimuli, provides context to those situations and relays that information to the amygdala.
  • Thalamus – Receives and distributes sensory information from throughout the body to various parts of the brain.
  • Pituitary glands – Work with the hypothalamus in the production and distribution of hormones controlling hunger, growth and sex drive; connected to the hypothalamus.
  • Neurons – Conduct electrochemical messages throughout the brain via a network of trillions of nerve fibers.
  • Insula – Provides emotional context to experience and interprets bodily states such as hungers and cravings.
  • Fusiform – Conveys ability to recognize faces.

Emotional Styles – How to Retrain Your Brain

Six emotional dimensions that shape our lives and determine how we respond to our environment and the people around us, based on activity in the brain.

  • Definition: The ability to recover from adversity
  • Originates: Signals between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala
  • How to retrain: Engage regularly in mindfulness meditation, focusing on your breathing and the sensations in your body


  • Definition: The ability to sustain a positive emotional viewpoint
  • Originates: Ventral straitum
  • How to retrain: Fill your workstation and home with positive reminders of happy times, such as vacations or photos of friends and family; change those photos every few weeks. Express gratitude often by thanking people and keeping a gratitude journal


  • Definition: The ability to determine the physical signals that reflect emotions
  • Originates: Signals between visceral organs and the insula
  • How to retrain: For the overly self-aware and critical, practice non-judgmentally observing thoughts and feelings; for those who want to develop more self-awareness, tune in frequently to your body and determine how you feel and where those feelings originate.

Social interactions

  • Definition: The ability to interpret social cues
  • Originates: Interplay between the amygdala and fusiform
  • How to retrain: Watch the body language of strangers and try to guess what emotions they are expressing. Work up to doing the same with family, friends and colleagues, monitoring how their body language matches with their tone of voice

Sensitivity to context

  • Definition: The ability to regulate responses based on the context of a situation
  • Originates: Activity levels in the hippocampus
  • How to retrain: List behaviors or events that trigger responses and consider why they did so. Think about your behaviors in those situations, meditating and breathing deeply until you feel more relaxed


  • Definition: The sharpness and clarity of focus
  • Originates: Regulated by the prefrontal cortex
  • How to retrain: Spend 10 minutes a day sitting in a quiet room and focusing on one object, refocusing when your attention wanders

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