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The Physiology of Emotion

David Taylor
Southern Virginia University
The scientific literature regarding emotion still leaves many questions unanswered. This paper
will explore the physiological definition of the basic emotions using neurophysiology to explore the
connection between the brain to the well-defined visceral responses to these emotions. It will also
explore how the individual can use cognition to regulate the expression of emotions in the brain and
viscera and how learning can change emotional reaction patterns.
Emotions determine the quality of our lives (Ekman, 2003, pg. xiii). Over the last 50 years,
the study of emotion has yielded many important findings such as the universal expression of the basic
emotions, several theories on the psychological mechanics of emotion and thousands of other
contributions. Knowing that all humans express emotion essentially the same way opens the doors to
strip away the psychology and boil emotion down to raw physiology. Unfortunately, the
neurophysiology remains unclear in some areas, so this paper serves only as an introductory
exploration of the subject. In addition to discussing the activation of visceral responses to emotion, this
paper explores another important aspect of emotion: regulation through cognition and learning. Popular
psychology and conventional wisdom maintains that each person has the ability to govern his or her
emotions and for that reason each person has the responsibility to regulate his or her emotions in a way
that society deems to be appropriate. The author, however believes that the individual cannot
consciously prevent any emotion from being activated within the brain simply by willing it so in the
moment of reaction. Although the author believes that the initial activation of emotion in the brain
cannot be prevented, the individual can, under most circumstances, control the magnitude to which the
basic emotions are experienced. Paul Ekman, the world's leading expert on the subject of emotion,
identifies these basic emotions as happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger, disgust and contempt
(2003). This paper includes Ekman's basic emotions but also discusses sexual arousal, while excluding
fear, disgust and contempt. Before discussing the basic emotions, this paper features a brief discussion
of the limbic system that regulates the involuntary expression of emotion in the brain. Then each
emotion will be explained physiologically. In the words of Dr. Ekman: There must be unique
physiological [CNS] patterns for each emotion (Hamann, S., Vytal, K., 2012, pg. 5) and this paper will
identify those patterns for each of the basic emotions mentioned beginning with the homeostatic

emotion we call happiness, followed by sadness, anger, and sexual arousal.

The Limbic System
Evolutionary history indicates that the limbic system arose to fulfill the function of selfpreservation (Swenson, 2006). This system regulates feelings of fear, the urge to reproduce, anger
towards enemies and so forth. Figure 1 (2006) shows a diagram of the neural connections between the
components of the limbic system and other regions of the brain. The limbic system receives input from
the forebrain by means of the hypothalamus (2006). The limbic system essentially functions as a
regulator of emotional homeostasis, always expressing whatever emotion will most effectively restore
the individual to a state of well-being. Although emotional regulation largely occurs autonomically,

Figure 1
the brain has the capability to generate a Relaxation Response,[24] which acts as the antidote to
Stress response. Studies[25] have shown that when men watched a funny video, levels of cortisol fell
by 39%, epinephrine fell by 70%, while levels of feel-good hormones, endorphins increased by 27%
and GH by 87%. An increase in anabolic chemicals, e.g. DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) was also
observed.[26] This led to lower blood pressures, reduced stress hormones, increased muscle relaxation
and a boost in immune function by raising levels of infection-fighting T-cells, increasing IgG, IgM and

IgA, complement levels and triggering the release of endorphins, the bodys natural painkillers.[27]
Median forebrain bundle and mesolimbic system are the main pleasure systems of the brain, and are
dopamine and serotonin based.[28] Relaxation activities, feelings of pleasure, happiness, meditation,
spirituality and bliss are all brought about by these physiological changes. Over time, individuals who
regularly practice the relaxation response have greater resilience to stress and trauma than others.
(Panagariya, A., 2011, pg. 9). It would appear, then that biofeedback makes it possible for the
individual to activate components of the limbic system that produce positive feelings. On the other
hand, activating negative memories by means of the hippocampus can produce negative emotions
independent of a stimulus outside the individual. Although emotional regulation can occur as the result
of cognition, the paper focuses on the autonomic component of how emotions are expressed. The
bottom line is that no matter what emotion may be presented, the limbic system will always act to bring
the individual back to a state of well-being, or happiness, the homeostatic emotion.
All organisms seek to achieve a state of well-being or happiness. Happiness or contentment can
be measured in the viscera as manifested by normal blood pressure and pulse, as a result of a normal
balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic stimulation of the heart and blood vessels.
Specifically, a study correlated life satisfaction with increased parasympathovagal activity during
sleeping compared to greater sympathovagal stimulation during rest in individuals who rated their life
satisfaction as being lower (Yoshino K. et al, 2012 pg. 2). This difference in autonomic nerve action
explains the function of pulse and blood pressure in defining happiness. In this sense, happiness or
contentment can be viewed physiologically as the absence of negative emotion that causes any
deviation from homeostasis. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, emotional homeostasis is
associated with decreased levels of cortisol and epinephrine, coupled with increased levels of
endorphins, GH, THEA, immunoglobin production and increased levels of dopamine and serotonin in
the brain (2011). The problem then is to define happiness physiologically in situations that affect blood
pressure, pulse or autonomic nervous function. The argument can be made that since happiness can be
experienced under conditions of increased pulse and blood pressure (for example during exercise) that
the emotion of happiness cannot be reliably defined by measuring the vital signs. The essential factor to
consider is that the increase in blood pressure and pulse does not occur as a result of experiencing the
emotion of happiness; it occurs as the result of increased physical activity. In fact, exercise stimulates
the release of endorphins which function to decrease the amount of pain experienced. Under normal
circumstances, the absence of pain is implicated in happiness and for this reason, endorphins positively
affect the expression of happiness. For this very reason, understanding happiness must begin with the

brain, tracing happiness from the cerebrum down to the viscera. The ALE analysis of activation foci
associated with happiness revealed nine significant clusters, with the largest (4880 mm3) located
primarily in the right superior temporal gyrus (Hamann, S., Vytal, K., 2012) Surprisingly,
neuroimaging studies indicate that happiness is the emotion most distantly connected to the limbic
brain. One explanation is that since happiness is the absence of negative emotion (sadness, fear, anger)
that the limbic system has no need to function in its active expression- rather it works to express
emotions that will result in actions that restore emotional homeostasis. Another explanation is that the
thalamus (also part of the limbic system) is also implicated in the expression of happiness. To
differentiate from the other emotions, happiness is the only of the basic emotions that involves neural
activity in both the right superior temporal gyrus and the thalamus (Hamann, S., Vytal, K., 2012). This
gives happiness a unique neurophysiological fingerprint. To conclude a physiological discussion of
happiness, the author defines happiness expressed in the viscera as the absence of any deviation from
homeostasis caused by any other emotion accompanied by activity in the right superior temporal gyrus,
thalamus, and other statistically significant regions of the brain not discussed in detail here (for more
detail, see Hamann, S., Vytal, K., 2012, pg. 5-6). Although psychology defines many different emotions
that include elements of enjoyment or happiness, physiology can define this emotion most simply in
terms of the absence of the visceral reactions associated with negative emotions.
Sadness can be defined simply as the opposite of happiness. On the extreme side of the
spectrum, clinical depression is defined physiologically in the brain as decreased neurotransmission of
serotonin. For this reason, depression is treated with drugs such as selective serotonin reuptake
inhibitors (SSRI). Serotonin, therefore has implications in experiencing happiness. One symptom of
physiological sadness is increased parasympathovagal stimulation, producing vasodilation beyond the
normal stimulation associated with homeostasis. This symptom manifests itself when an individual
experiencing sadness experiences physical pain, for example from an abrasion. The increased
parasympathovagal stimulation results in vasodilation and increased cutaneous blood flow, causing a
greater amount of inflammation and thereby pain as a result of the abrasion (Beevers, C., Ellis, A.,
Reid, M., 2010, pg. 1). This explains why even a small degree of physical discomfort seems much
harder to bear while the individual experiences sadness. The brain structures activated during sadness
include the left medial frontal gyrus, portions of the frontal and temporal lobes, the basal ganglia,
cerebellum and the thalamus. According to a neuroimaging study, However, happiness and sadness
were not reliably differentiated, and the spatial divisions used in that study were too large to address the
issue of discriminability at the level of specific brain regions. (Hamann, S., Vytal, K., 2012, pg. 8).

This then, suggests that in terms of neurophysiology, happiness and sadness are emotional opposites. It
is also believed that heart rate can be used as a measure of sadness or for vulnerability to depression:
Heart rate variability is thought to be a physiological index of emotion regulation capacity because
many of the brain structures involved in emotion regulation are also involved in the regulation of the
autonomic nervous system. For instance, it is well established that executive functioning mediated by
the prefrontal cortex is closely associated with emotion regulation...Interestingly, prefrontal cortical
areas, such as the anterior cingulate, insular and ventromedial prefrontal cortices, the central nucleus of
the amygdala, are also part of the central autonomic network...This network is partly responsible for
providing parasympathetic input to the heart. Therefore, heart rate variability appears to be an indirect
measure of physiological capacity for emotion regulation (2010). The function of sadness then is to
reduce the individual's physical capacities and inclinations toward normal activity, affording time to
grieve and come to grips with whatever adversity has occurred. With this knowledge, employers should
be obligated to offer or even require employees having experienced significant emotional trauma
causing grief to offer at least a minimum amount of time off from work since their physical capacities
are necessarily limited by the visceral expression of sadness.
In psychological terms, sadness and anger are closely related in the sense that both emotions
react to an undesired circumstance. Difference in personality or temperament may cause two different
people to favor anger or sadness when presented with the same circumstance. The physiology of
sadness and anger underlines their essential difference. Anger is manifested physiologically by
increased blood pressure, pulse and results in greater physical exertions. Increased blood pressure
occurs as the result of the secretion of adrenaline and noradrenaline, causing vasoconstriction. Anger
also activates specific brain structures: The...analysis of activation foci associated with anger revealed
13 significant clusters, with the largest (2408 mm3) located primarily in the left inferior frontal gyrus
(2012) Other brain structures activated include the thalamus and amygdala. Males generally express
greater levels of aggression than females. One explanation of this fact is that the Y chromosome
functions in the production of testosterone. Increased levels of testosterone may have a positive
correlation with aggression (Terburg, D., 2011, pg. 3). Although the exact mechanism of how anger is
expressed is unclear, it is clear that individuals who fail to regulate their anger response put themselves
at increased risk for heart problems manifested later on in life. For patients awaiting angiography,
stress, and lack of social support are important predictors of self-reported cardiac symptoms,
irrespective of actual disease severity. Intervention could focus on reducing perceived stress by
encouraging reappraisal and a support seeking, rather than a ruminative, anger coping style...The

tendency to ruminate about anger experiences was also a strong individual predictor of surgical anxiety
and cardiac symptoms. (Leon, T., et al., 2010, pg. 6). While anger does serve a useful purpose at
times, individuals with anger management issues should develop a biofeedback mechanism to help
mitigate the cardiovascular risks associated with chronic experiences with anger.
Sexual Arousal
Although Dr. Ekman does not include it in the basic emotions, sexual arousal is clearly tied to
the limbic brain and its mechanism of expression mirrors that of the generally accepted basic emotions.
Before discussing the physiology of arousal, the author wishes to clearly differentiate between erection
and arousal. For example, Viagra, the most popular drug for treating male erectile dysfunction is
commonly viewed as a male aphrodisiac. Viagra's mechanism, however, functions only to produce
genital vasodilation in the male by increasing production of nitric oxide- it produces male erection but
it does nothing to directly influence the brain physiology that results in the desire to engage in sexual
activity. Once again, separating the visceral from the neural, sexual arousal implicates components of
the mesolimbic system of the brain, including the amygdala, and in males there is a positive correlation
with hypothalamic activation (Feldhaus-Dahir, M., 2010, pg. 5). This finding is consistent with the fact
that bonding between sexual partners during intercourse or other arousing activities results in the
secretion of oxytocin by the posterior pituitary. This makes sense since the hypothalamus is implicated
in sexual arousal and it functions to produce and release the oxytocin. It is essential to take into account
that female sexual arousal does not produce the same activation of the brain as in males. Female
arousal implicates the hypothalamus as well, but not in a statistically significant way (2010). Although
research has identified general trends in effective stimuli for male and female arousal, the exact details
are still unclear. Since the motor patterns involved in male vs. female sexual behavior are so notably
different, particularly in our animal models, it is usually assumed that separate neuronal networks exist
within the brain to specifically regulate the expression of each. However, no male vs. female circuit has
been identified to date; it might be hypothesized that the reality is that the neuronal underpinnings of
male vs. female sex behavior are largely the same, but critical nodes are weighted differently
although this is not a regulatory mechanism that has been proven yet. (2010). Interestingly, further
research revealed that using coupling erotic images with learning activities enhances memory function
(Foer, 2011). This makes sense since the the amygdala and hippocampus (both components of the
limbic system) are implicated in sexual arousal and memory, respectively. Much remains to be
explained concerning sexual arousal. The first step to correctly approaching the problem, however, is to
focus less on merely generating blood flow to the erectile bodies and more to identify where arousal
begins in the brain and to develop drugs that enhance neurotransmission within those areas of the brain.

Although neurophysiology explains a great deal concerning emotions, many questions remain
unanswered. The study of emotion will benefit greatly from the recent project initiated by President
Barack Obama to create a more detailed map of the brain (White House, 2013). This effort will reveal
exactly how each region of the brain connects to the other and will offer insights into the neurological
differences between men and women, and hopefully shed new light on the exact biochemical
mechanisms activating each emotion in the brain.

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