Emotions and the brain

There comes a moment in your day, your week or your life when you have to make a critical decision. The moment you realize the magnitude of the decision you have to make you are also least likely to make the right choice.


To understand what happens to us when we’re faced with a critical problem we need to change arena and look at something a little more extreme, like a theatre of war. In War Sebastian Junger draws deeply from his time as an embedded journalist with US troops in Afghanistan’s Korengal valley to quantify the exact same decision-making problem in very stark terms:

The problem is that it’s hard to aim a rifle when your heart is pounding, which points to an irony of modern combat: it does extraordinarily violent things to the human body but requires almost dead calm to execute well. Complex motor skills start to diminish at 145 beats per minute, which wouldn’t matter much in a swordfight but could definitely ruin your aim with a rifle. At 170 beats per minute you start to experience tunnel vision, loss of depth perception, and restricted hearing. And at 180 beats per minute you enter a netherworld where rational thought decays, bowel and bladder control are lost, and you start to exhibit the crudest sorts of survival behaviors: freezing, fleeing, and submission.

Firing a rifle is no more physically demanding than making a sandwich, so when the heartbeat goes above normal it’s because the brain is subjected to the neurobiological response that results from emotions such as fear, anger or panic. The obvious response to such an observation is to try and lock emotions away but that usually requires even more of an internal struggle and the chances are that by the time you’ve gained control of yourself and your emotions, the critical decision you had to make has now become a crisis you need to manage or an opportunity that’s been missed.

Is there a solution?

It is perhaps best to first understand the process of emotion generation before we look at emotion regulation. Emotions are the output of a particular sequence of processing. This means they arise out of our circumstances or our imaginings. Our body exhibits a physiological response (an elevated heartbeat is only part of a complex neurobiological process) because we direct attention to these situations, process and appraise them further in line with our personal goals and then generate cognitive, physiological, emotional and behavioral responses.

The modal model of emotion breaks down the emotional response into four distinct stages each of which can be affected and changed by a corresponding action or thought:

Situation > Situation selection/modification
Attention > Attentional deployment
Appraisal > Cognitive change
Response > response modulation

It requires a little awareness and some practice (a.k.a. training) to then learn to control emotions, channeling their energy into the cognitive processes that lead to better choices and decisions.

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