Emotion in the Brain

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In the brain, emotions are a complex combination of activity in several brain areas. Two main systems are involved: the limbic system, and the cortex.

Complex Combination

Many areas in the brain play a part in the emotional experience of a person. These areas all have different functions that are combined into what we call an emotion. In general, two systems can be discerned in the brain that regulate and control emotion:

Here, the three most important brain areas in each system will be discussed.

The Limbic System

The first brain area in the limbic system that plays a part in emotional experiences is the amygdala, which is responsible for fear and emotional learning. To do this, it gathers information from two routes:

  • One coming from the primary sensory areas in the cortex makes it possible to react to a stimulus based on a cognitive assessment.
  • Another one coming directly from the thalamus, which allows fast emotional approach or avoidance reactions, of which some are innate and others learned.

The second brain area in the limbic system is the hippocampus which places emotions in their context. Emotions are a lot more than automatic or instinctive reactions. Human beings are very adept at finding connections between contexts and experiencing emotions. The area where this happens is the hippocampus.

The third area in the limbic system that plays a part in emotion, is the gyrus cinguli which performs that role of the interface between emotion and cognition. Even though this structure is often considered to be part of the cortex, it is closely connected to the subcortical emotion centers, which is why it is often thought of as a part of the limbic system.

Figure 1: The limbic system (source: http://www.bodiesinspace.com/?p=7623)

The Cortex

The limbic system allows us to have quick and simple emotional reactions. But most of the time our emotional experiences are more complex, which is why we also need a proper functioning cortex to experience emotion.

The first brain area in the cortex that plays a part in the emotional experience, is the orbitofrontal cortex. This area is responsible for an adequate reaction to complex rewards and punishments. This aids in controlling our response to certain social interactions.

A second part of the cortex of importance here, is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which integrates feelings into the goals one is pursuing. Here, both positive and negative emotions are brought together with cognition to determine the optimal behavior to pursue a personal goal, based on emotional information.

Thirdly, the parietal cortex should be mentioned. This area helps us understand emotions. It assists us in interpreting emotions as they are being displayed by others, by taking into account facial expression, vocal cues, and so on.

Figure 2: Main areas in the cortex (source: http://class.csueastbay.edu/commsci/ATP%20website%201-4.htm)


  • Coricelli, G.; Dolan, R.J. & Sirigu, A. (2007). Brain, emotion and decision making: the paradigmatic example of regret. Trends in Cognitive Science. 11(6), pp. 258 – 265.
  • Ferrari, V.; Bradley, M.M.; Codispoti, M. & Lang, P.J. (2010). Repetitive exposure: Brain and reflex measures of emotion and attention. Psychophysiology. 48(4), pp. 515 – 522.


Abdel-moniem El-Shorbagy
Posted on Mar 31, 2011
Ron Siojo
Posted on Mar 31, 2011