Recognizing and Managing Brain-Based Responses to Emotions

By Jazmine Franklin

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Our emotions are closely tied to the social and emotional competencies of cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control. For example, when you assert yourself, you are expressing strong emotions effectively. You show empathy when you recognize and manage your own emotions and perceive those of others. And when you exercise self-control you handle overwhelming emotions and keep your impulses in check. Nurturing these competencies requires developing the skills to recognize and manage brain-based responses to emotions, which gives both children and adults the tools to support themselves in staying on a trajectory to the best and most desired outcome.

Becoming comfortable with our emotions is a big part of the lifelong journey of social-emotional learning. As we grow older and develop greater social and emotional competence, we will still experience a range of often strong and compelling emotions—they do not go away just because we get more skilled at managing them. Understanding what emotions are, what purpose they serve, what information they provide, and how we can use them is the ongoing work of understanding ourselves and others more deeply.

What Are Emotions?

Understanding and philosophizing about emotions has been going on for centuries. Ancient philosophers such as Zeno of Citium and Seneca the Younger and Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas took strong stances about whether—or which—emotions were good. Emotions have been researched and studied in a wide range of fields, from psychology to biology, since the early 1800s (Beck, 2015). Despite centuries of research and writing on emotions, a conclusive definition of what they are exactly has proven difficult. Emotions have been viewed as evolutionary adaptations or as purely psychological processes. Emotions have been thought to be universal and experienced similarly across cultures (Ekman, 1970) and species (Plutchik, 2001), while others believe emotions to be wholly dependent on personal experience (Barrett, 2017; LeDoux, 2015).

Regardless of which definition of emotions you choose, scientists do agree that your body responds in visceral ways to them, and feeling emotions affects the way you think and act in specific ways.

In an effort to find common ground on the definition of emotions, one psychologist researched the researchers and surveyed 34 scientists on their definition of emotions (Izard, 2010). Most of these researchers agreed on two overarching areas: first, that emotions involve neurobiological and other physiological responses that activate cognitive and behavioral responses; second, that when individuals experience an emotion, they receive information that may affect their behavior. The study also revealed a high level of agreement among those surveyed that emotions all have different functions and purposes, and that there are conscious and unconscious connections between emotion and cognition (Izard, 2010). Regardless of which definition of emotions you choose, scientists do agree that your body responds in visceral ways to them, and feeling emotions affects the way you think and act in specific ways.

The Eight Basic Emotions

Of course, we do not need a scientific definition of emotions to be able to recognize what it feels like to experience, regulate, and benefit from emotions in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. We do, however, need to narrow down our list of possible emotions from the over 3,000 definitions listed in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary to a shorter, more manageable list. If it is a challenge to agree on a definition of emotions, it should not come as a surprise that there will be similar hurdles to agreeing on a short list of primary emotions.

Three to 11 different emotions have been identified by researchers as basic emotions (Plutchik, 2001). Psychoevolutionary theory uses an evolutionary perspective to derive a theory of emotion and emotional consequences for cognition, personality, and psycho-therapy that brings together several different theoretical understandings of emotions (Plutchik, 1980). This theory recognizes eight basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation. According to Robert Plutchik’s (1980) seminal work in this field, these eight emotions are arranged in four pairs of opposites, typically represented visually with complementary colors for each pair of opposites. Each emotion also varies in intensity, with stronger and weaker variations that are recognized as related yet distinct versions of the basic emotions. For example, fear in its weakest form is apprehension, while its strongest variation is the feeling of terror.

The wheel of emotions shown is a visual representation of these relationships, based on the work of different psychologists over the past decades (McDougall, 1921; Plutchik, 1980; Russell, 1980; Schlosberg, 1954). The colors help to depict both the intensity of and the contrast between the eight basic emotions. According to psychoevolutionary theory, all emotions are combinations or degrees of these eight basic emotions. Pairs of the different basic emotions combined in certain ways lead to different feelings altogether. Primary dyads, or combinations of neighboring emotions on the wheel, result in other common emotions. For example, joy combined with trust results in love, while anger combined with anticipation results in aggressiveness. Some researchers propose secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary dyads, all of which are combinations of pairs of emotions in different relationships around the wheel to classify many more emotions (TenHouten, 2017).

The Purpose of Emotions

Regardless of where an emotion falls on the wheel, each one has a purpose. In the moment, emotional reactions are often immediate responses to external stimuli. In the longer term, emotional reactions incite the person feeling that emotion to action, creating a feedback process in which emotion, action, and cognition are linked together. Scientists as far back as Charles Darwin (1872) theorized that emotions, and the expressive behaviors that go with them, help to pass information from one individual to another about what is going to happen. Evolutionarily, this type of cognition aided survival and “developed in order to predict the future more effectively” (Plutchik, 2001, p. 347). Emotions helped people—as they always have—to interact with, learn from, and thrive with each other and the world around us.

With this evolutionary perspective in mind, it is easier to see that emotions serve a purpose that is useful to us and our success. While certain emotions might feel more comfortable than others, each emotion has an appropriate time and place. Although few people actually want to feel anger, it developed in order to achieve a specific end: It motivates one to action. From an evolutionary perspective, anger is rooted in the need to attack an enemy. When an obstacle presents itself, anger spurs s to action to get rid of the obstacle. While trust is a more comforting emotion to feel, its purpose—allowing us to feel vulnerable and bond with others—would not be appropriate for all situations. A feeling of trust identifies members of one’s group or family, encouraging acceptance and cooperation—not a helpful emotion to feel when facing an obstacle or enemy. In fact, it could be dangerous to trust an enemy or allow an obstacle to persist. Anger and trust both have their purposes and their places in our lives.

Regulating emotions does not mean we should suppress them, silence them, or not feel them. Rather, it is the opposite: Regulating your emotions means that you are managing them and that they are not controlling you.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness has been around for centuries in various forms and called by different names. In recent years, though, the practice has garnered significant attention and research, particularly around its use in group settings such as schools and workplaces. Large corporations such as Aetna, Google, General Mills, Intel, and Target brought mindfulness practices into their work life, recognizing the ways that it lowers stress, improves focus, and sharpens employees’ listening, thinking, and decision-making skills (Schaufenbuel, 2015). The U.S. Marine Corps incorporated just 15 minutes of mindfulness practice each day, and after eight weeks reported that marines’ ability to deal with anxiety, stress, depression, and insomnia improved. They also found that the marines were better able to stay calm and focused in intense situations, and their mental and physical fitness increased (Penman 2012).

It should not seem counterintuitive to imagine a corporate executive, a computer programmer, and a marine all finding what they need in these practices. Mindfulness is essentially a form of brain training or exercise designed to stimulate or calm certain areas of your brain, depending on the different reactions you experience and

the outcomes you seek. Similarly impactful results have been seen in classrooms and schools for teachers and students where mindfulness practices are in place. Teachers reported having more emotionally supportive classrooms, greater effectiveness in their work, and better classroom organization after practicing mindfulness (Breen, 2016; Bronfenbrenner Center, 2017; Emerson et al., 2017).

Gutierrez and colleagues (2019) recently examined the impact of a school-based mindfulness intervention on sustained attention and perceived levels of stress on sixth grade students. They found that students showed a reduction in perceived stress and small improvements in sustained attention, as well as a reduced response in the amygdala— the part of the brain that regulates emotions— to negative stimuli. The study also indicated a correlation between better academic achievement and behavioral outcomes.

Another study examined the effectiveness of a mindfulness program when combined with an SEL curriculum (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015). Fourth and fifth graders who received the SEL and mindfulness programs in combination showed stronger results in cognitive control, stress physiology, empathy, emotional control, prosocial behaviors, and peer acceptance than students who instead received a social responsibility program. Those students who received the combined programs also had fewer self-reported symptoms of depression and peer-rated aggression.

The existing research provides only a limited understanding of the full impact mindfulness practices can have in a classroom setting, but the results are promising. What is clear is that training your brain to learn from your emotions can be an effective strategy both in and out of the classroom. It all comes down to understanding and learning from the science of your brain.

The Science of Mindfulness

Three areas of the brain work together to process emotions—the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala and hippocampus are part of the limbic system, whose primary functions involve handling emotions, behavior, long-term memory, and—believe it or not—your sense of smell. The amygdala is a cluster of neurons that processes memory, makes decisions, and responds to emotional stimuli, especially fear, anger, anxiety, and aggression. An example of the amygdala in action is the fight-or-flight response people experience when they feel threatened or in danger.

The hippocampus is another part of the limbic system that is connected to cognition, especially learning and memory. The hippocampus is responsible for consolidating information from short-term memory to long-term memory as well as for perceiving new stimuli such as events, places, and experiences (VanElzakker et al., 2008). Your hippocampus also receives emotional information from the amygdala and then encodes it in your brain, storing it for later retrieval (Gluck et al., 2014).

The third area of the brain involved in processing emotions is the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with short-term memory and executive function. Many of the tasks required of students at school and adults at work—such as paying attention, remembering assignments, planning and organizing, and thinking ahead— originate in the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain continues to develop well into a person’s twenties, which means that executive functioning tasks are often quite challenging for students. When activated, the prefrontal cortex can help regulate emotions, control impulses, and aid thoughtful decision-making.

When your brain has a strong emotional response to external stimuli, it can quickly become overwhelmed, or what Daniel Goleman (1996) refers to as “amygdala hijack” to explain what happens in the brain in this kind of situation. Mindful practices seek to calm the amygdala while activating the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex (Fox et al., 2014). Through mindfulness, you can train your brain to quiet that fight-or-flight response to allow you to pay more attention to the brain’s messages around cognition, memory, and decision-making.

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Jazmine Franklin

Jazmine Franklin is the chief programs officer for Fly Five at Center for Responsive Schools. She began as a consultant and program developer at CRS, playing a vital role in the development of Responsive Classroom programs. Before joining CRS, Jazmine spent six years as a second grade teacher in Chicago Public Schools and two years in Guilford County Schools in North Carolina.