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The Science of Emotion:
How the Brain Processes Feelings.

When we feel a certain way, such as feeling hurt by a comment made by a loved one, our brains go through a rapid, almost automatic process that is designed to protect us. However, this process often ends up causing more harm than good.

However we are not powerless over our brains! When we understand the science of what’s happening, we can learn how to pause and take actions to ‘rewire’ our brain processes for better outcomes.

The Science of Emotion | June Health
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Step 1

Receiving the Stimulus

The Thalamus receives a stimulus from our eyes, ears and other senses.

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The Science of Emotion | June Health
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Step 2

The “Rational” Brain

The info from the Thalamus (our senses) flows to our “rational brain”, the Cortex. This is the higher-level part of the brain which separates us from animals. The Cortex allows us to weigh the tradeoffs of our actions and decisions.

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The Science of Emotion | June Health
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Step 3

Flight or Fight

However, the information from the Thalamus also flows over a second pathway to one of the oldest regions of the brain, the Amygdala. This is our “primal” brain, where instincts and rapid-fire processing occurs. Flight or fight.

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The Science of Emotion | June Health
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Step 4

Which signal gets there first?

Notice that the distance to the Amygdala is much shorter! Because of the shorter distance, our Amygdala gets the signal first, and thus our initial impulses are emotional – flight or fight. This is handy in the case of stumbling upon a hungry lion (you’d be dead if the Cortex were processing the decision!), but can be problematic in modern life.

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The Science of Emotion | June Health
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Step 5

Which pathway wins?

This is at the forefront of science today. When does the rational Cortical pathway dominate and when does the instinctual Amygdala pathway dominate? Scientists are still learning, and also have discovered a direct pathway between the Cortex and Amygdala! Your rational mind can say to your Amygdala “this is safe, we can take our time to respond.”

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Step 6

Putting it all together

How does knowing this brain science affect our mental & emotional health? It all starts with a key principle of brain science: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” We can strengthen (or weaken) our neurological pathways based on how often we use them! Just like our physical muscles.

The more we learn to exercise our Cortical Pathway, the more we build up that muscle and the more we can override, reduce, and pause our emotional “flight or fight” mechanism in situations where we don’t need it. Much of mindfulness is being aware of when we trigger that lower-level instinctual pathway, and then how we can “practice the pause” and get back to high-level, rational, self-caring, healthy thoughts and actions.

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