On any given day, we go through many different emotions. We can feel happiness and excitement, but we may also feel more unpleasant things like disgust and sadness. Our emotions play an important role in how we function and live our daily lives. They affect our relationships and how we make decisions. But exactly what part of the brain controls emotion? Here, we’ll discuss the answer to that question and explore how emotions work.
How Do Emotions Originate from the Brain?
The various parts of the brain make up a very complex organ. It controls everything, from the voluntary movements of your body to your heart rate and breathing. The brain also plays a vital role in controlling and processing emotions.
Emotions originate from the part of the brain connected with behaviors and instincts we rely on for survival. This includes feeding, reproduction, caring for our young, and the fight or flight response. All of these are tied to emotional responses. For instance, we produce children with partners who we are emotionally invested in. Another example is the anxiety that comes with the fight-or-flight response.
The limbic system, also called the “emotional brain,” is responsible for these emotions. This region is located deep in the middle of the brain and bridges areas in the brain stem.
Researchers still have many questions about the brain’s role in the wide range of emotions we experience. So far, they have pinpointed the origins of common emotions, such as fear, anger, happiness, and love.
What Part of the Brain Controls Emotions?
Our emotions are linked to the different parts of the limbic system. Researchers have identified four main areas as the main components of the limbic system, including the hypothalamus, amygdala, thalamus, and hippocampus. Each area has its own purpose, but together, they work to regulate and control emotions.
- Hypothalamus. This part of the limbic system controls the sexual response, hormone release, and regulating body temperature. It is also involved in controlling emotional responses.
- Hippocampus. This helps preserve and retrieve memories. The hippocampus also helps us understand the spatial dimensions of our environment.
- Amygdala. The amygdala coordinates responses to stimuli in your environment, especially those that cause an emotional response. This structure is important in our experiences of fear and anger.
- Limbic cortex. The limbic cortex is split into the cingulate gyrus and the parahippocampal gyrus. Together, they influence mood, motivation, and judgment.
What Part of the Brain Controls Fear?
From a biological standpoint, fear is an important emotion as it helps us respond to threats that may endanger our safety and security.
The amygdala generates fear when it is stimulated. This, in turn, stimulates the hypothalamus for the fight-or-flight response. The hypothalamus then sends signals to the adrenal glands to produce hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which increase your heart and breathing rate, dilate your pupils, and give you pale and flushed skin.
The amygdala also plays a role in fear learning, which is when you are conditioned to associate certain situations with feelings of fear. Some people who have experienced trauma may have an overactive fear response. Trauma can affect the brain in certain ways that may cause the amygdala to go on overdrive.
What Part of the Brain Controls Anger?
Like fear, anger is a response to environmental stressors or threats. Dangerous situations can elicit an anger or aggression response just as much as it can make us experience fear.
The amygdala and hypothalamus control anger, similar to the fear response. Anger affects the brain and body by triggering the fight-or-flight response and releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
The prefrontal cortex of our brains also plays a role in anger, particularly in regulating such emotions. People who have damaged this area of their brains may sometimes have difficulty controlling anger and aggression [*].
What Part of the Brain Controls Happiness?
Happiness is a state of feeling satisfied or a good level of well-being, often accompanied by positive thoughts and feelings.
Studies suggest that happiness is controlled by the limbic cortex and an area called the precuneus, which is responsible for memory retrieval, maintaining one’s sense of self, and focusing attention on our environment. Findings have shown that people with larger grey matter in their right precuneus reported increased happiness [*][*].
What Part of the Brain Controls Love?
It is interesting to note that feelings for romantic love are associated with the stress response triggered by the hypothalamus, the same area that controls fear and anger. However, when we consider the nervous excitement or anxiety we feel when falling for someone, the involvement of the hypothalamus makes more sense.
As feelings of love and attraction develop, the hypothalamus triggers the release of other happiness chemicals and hormones, including dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin. Dopamine is associated with the brain’s reward system, making love feel good.
Dopamine is associated with your body’s reward system. This helps make love a desirable feeling. In fact, a 2015 study demonstrated a statistically significant difference in the activation of dopamine-rich parts of the brain when participants were shown photos of their romantic partners [*].
Next is oxytocin, which is commonly referred to as the “love hormone.” It is responsible for feelings of trust and is also associated with social bonding. A study conducted in 2017 found that romantically involved partners who expressed gratitude to each other had greater levels of oxytocin, which led to improved perceptions of their partners and greater experienced love [*]. Vasopressin is similar to oxytocin in promoting social bonding with a romantic partner.
Can Brain Injuries Affect Emotion Regulation?
Brain injuries can affect emotion regulation. Trauma can also affect the brain by changing the way people feel or express their emotions.
Studies have found that individuals with traumatic brain injury (TBI) can develop several types of emotional problems, such as anxiety and mood disorders [*]. They may also struggle with controlling or regulating their emotions. Some people with TBI may experience a flood of emotions quickly and intensely with little lasting effect, such as being quick to anger but getting over it easily.
Mood swings and emotional instability are attributed to damage to brain parts that control emotions and behavior. There is often no specific trigger for these intense emotional responses, which can be confusing for others. For instance, some cases may involve the affected individual having sudden outbursts of laughter or crying. These episodes may not always match the situation but cannot be controlled by the individual with a brain injury.
The Bottom Line
Researchers are continuously working to study the brain, which is quite a complicated organ, to understand our emotions better. So far, when we ask what part of the brain controls emotions, we know which regions control basic emotions like anger, happiness, love, and fear. Scientists may discover more about the roots of complicated emotions, giving us a better view of the workings of the human mind.
- Blair, RJR. Considering anger from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. 1 January 2013.
- Kringelbach M & Berridge K. The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure. 1 July 2011.
- Sato W, Takanori K, Uono S, et al. Resting-state neural activity and connectivity associated with subjective happiness. 20 August 2019.
- Takashi K, Mizuno K, Sasaki A, et al. Imaging the passionate stage of romantic love by dopamine dynamics. 9 April 2015.
- Kureshi N, Clarke D, Feng C. Association between traumatic brain injury and mental health care utilization: evidence from the Canadian Community Health Survey. 13 March 2023.