The brain is the ultimate controller and regulator of our every thought, feeling, and action. So then why does the heart seemingly ache with heartbreak, in line with every cheesy love song ever written? Why does it feel like our emotions have the ability to run rampantly untamed, no matter how much we attempt to control them? When we condense complex feelings into patterns of brain activation, it feels innately foreign, as if this perspective removes the innately human experiences associated with those emotions. At the same time, however, we heavily rely on biological explanations to explain intricate issues such as the cause of depression. So then what actually controls our emotions?
Everyone experiences uniquely nuanced, complex, and even conflicting feelings. A view that only represents emotions as being solely decided by neurotransmitters and established wiring removes the mental experience involved, completely bypassing how cognitive processes are responsible for biochemical and physical changes in the body. This is the reason why an emotional breakup or a loss of loved one causes heartbreak that actually physically hurts. When people think about the pain of the experience, this social pain involves the same brain regions that are activated by being physically hurt, such as the anterior cingulate cortex.
The anterior cingulate cortex is shown through functional neuroimaging to integrate inputs from both cognitive and emotional networks. Its other functions include regulating autonomic processes such as heart rate and blood pressure.1 This shared functionality of cognitive, emotional, and physical aspects in a single region shows how all three can intersect within one brain structure. During times of stress and pain, the anterior cingulate cortex can induce increased vagus nerve activity, a nerve that runs from the brain stem and connects to the chest and abdomen, causing pain and nausea.2 All of this explains why heartbreak actually feels like your heart is in pain. Thoughts about the emotional pain cause stress, inducing this characteristic chest pain. In response to this stress, the brain releases hormones including cortisol and epinephrine. These catecholamines create symptoms by increasing cardiac output, blood flow to skeletal muscles, and dilation of respiratory passageways.3 So thoughts about heartbreak directly cause sensations within the chest including increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and muscle tightness.1
The study of emotion is a subfield of neuroscience termed affective neuroscience, which tries to understand the neural mechanisms behind how the brain creates emotional response. For example, the amygdala has been shown to have many functions such as producing the physiological response of fear to visual stimuli even before the sight of a snake or similarly dangerous objects are consciously registered.4 Traditionally, neuroscientists have separated the fields of cognitive mental processes of decision-making, perception, and memory from the more subjective process of emotion. This was based upon both a false assumption that the two were anatomically segregated and the lack of functional imaging to objectively study emotion. However, integrating knowledge about cognition, emotion, and physiology is the only way to comprehensively understand why we feel the way we do.5
So what can we do to control our emotions and our chemical responses? Fortunately, brain pathways are flexible and constantly change with our thoughts and how we perceive experiences. This affects how we feel and the different neurotransmitters and hormones that are released in response. So next time you are stressing out before a looming exam or grappling with a painful breakup, try to think of it as a normal experience, not just as stress to worry about, and challenge for you to overcome. Interacting with others in social situations and engaging in stress-relieving activities, from working out to mediating, can also blunt the effects of emotional pain. These cognitive changes can actually help you cope better and prevent your emotions from physically affecting or overwhelming you.
Bush, G; Luu, Phan; Posner, M. Cognitive and emotional influence in Trends in Cog Sci 2000, 4(6), 215-222.
Emery, R; Coan, J. What causes chest pain when feelings are hurt? https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-causes-chest-pains/ (accessed 10/12/16), part of Scientific American.
Ranabir, S; Reetu, K. Stress and Hormones. Indian J Endocriniol Metab 2011, 15(1), 18-22.
Harmon-Jones, E; Harmon-Jones, C. Affective Neuroscience. http://nobaproject.com/modules/affective-neuroscience#content (10/22/16), part of University of South Wales NOBA Project.
Davidson, RJ. Cognitive Neuroscience needs affective neuroscience (and vice versa). Brain Cogn 2000, 42(1), 89-92.