Myth of the Emotional Brain

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You Are Not Your Emotions

Emotions seem to be some sort of mystical trickery don’t they? They make the heart race or slow down, change the breath and overall seem to get the best of us. But that is not the case. No, really.

The basic needs of our bodies directly impact our AFFECT which create sensations we derive meaning from thanks to past experience & culture. From this we fabricate EMOTIONS.

Consider the word hangry, defined as “bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.” “Hanger” succinctly exemplifies how fundamental needs greatly impact our entire being.

So yeah, yeah, we all know we should eat well, sleep well and aim for a life of middle ground. But why do these things seem so out-of-reach most or all of the time? Let’s look into the brain, emotions and ways to help mitigate the seemingly vast world between mind and body. 

Myth of the Reptilian (Emotional) Brain

A commonly accepted “classical” understanding of the brain is known as the Triune Brain. A primordial reptilian circuitry (sub-cortical tissues) is the foundation. The “limbic” brain, also called the “emotional brain” sits atop the slithering reptilian mass. Wrapped around these ancient parts is the “cerebral cortex,” supposedly giving us mythical rationality. A long-held belief is how we are governed by our emotions and that our “thinking mind” is what helps us to be “rational” humans.

There is no such thing as a “rational human being.” This is an outmoded concept core economic models are STILL based on. Yikes. It’s hogwash. Evidence shows our brains grow and expand, mainly through learned behaviors gained through experience rather than being blindly governed by an “ancient” “emotional” core that is constantly chastised by the newer “thinking mind” (cortex).

Eat, Poop and Sleep

Thank goodness I came across the works of Lisa Feldman Barret, a Psychologist concerned with the Theory of Constructed Emotion. The theory goes something like this:

Our emotional/mental states are heavily governed by our “body budgets” as well as our social settings, culture and, of course, genetic make up. 

A body budget is the stuff your nervous system is checking and making happen ALL-THE-TIME: what are you glucose levels (are you Hangry?)? Did you get enough sleep or are you running on artificial means like caffeine? What is your oxygen intake? Are you thirsty? Are your bowels running efficiently? Our brain, the central nervous system, is ALWAYS ON. It needs to monitor everything, all of the time, to ensure we stay alive from glucose to heartrate to oxygen levels to how much of what neurotransmitters are needed and so on…

Through a humored reductionist lens I like to think of this as “eat, poop and sleep.” The basic stuff concerning EVERY human and any sentient being for that matter. Just mix in sexuality along with a sense of stability and purpose and we get to look at the messy, existential human existence. 

Emotions are shaped by our culture. (Image by Andrea Piacquadi.)

“I Come to Your Emotional Rescue”

This brings us to Emotions. Emotions are constructs. They help us communicate with and understand other people. The funny thing is that a racing heart is a racing heart to the brain (i.e., body budget). It acts the same way whether you are running from a bear, on an adrenaline rush from a roller coaster ride, have butterflies in your stomach because you’re in love, or super angry because something audacious happened.  Emotions are social constructs that give meaning to a human, that is SOCIAL, experience. Labeling and categorizing states of being helps us interact with and try to better understand other people and their experiences. Emotions are relational.

What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?

Christian Wiman

So. What is it we want when we cant stop wanting? This question really struck me last year when I read Christian Wiman’s book, “He Held Radical Light.” It is a very human experience to seek, want, find meaning and experience emotions within that seeking. Looking through this “emotional lens” it may simply be that we need to tend to our gardens a bit more diligently. Eat well, find time for rest during the day and surrender to a deep sleep that suits our individual constitutions during the night. We are social creatures whose body budgets are in relationship to feeling safe, secure and loved (what ever that looks like to an individual).  Relationship. Culture. All of these.

Aromatherapy for Finding the “Middle Ground”

Let’s bring all of this together. Think of the things that often make us feel really good or really bad:

  • Bad = hungry, thirsty, lack of sleep, poor digestion.
  • Good = nourished, hydrated, well rested and smooth/regular digestion.
  • A bonus? Living in a loving community, a fulfilling sex life, being supported by a purpose in life, experiencing minimal dis-ease and navigating negative stress.

Guess what? Aromatic plants and their essential oils may assist with all of these. We can incorporate aromatic herbs and spices into our cooking to aid digestion AND enhance flavor. There are some oils known to promote sleep and others for clarity and uplift.  We can incorporate essential oils into our routines to enhance sexuality, self-care routines and mitigate stress.

The nervous system, THE “communication network” of our existence, is always changing and adapting to our inner and outer worlds. For years I have asked clients and students alike to reflect upon subtle changes that happen to their heart rate, breathing rate, body temperature, emotions (and more!) when smelling an essential oil.

Have you ever “tuned in” to an essential oil this way? Find yourself an essential oil you’d like to spend time with and allow me to guide you through a meditation. Essential oils are chemical information, molecules of communication.

Thank you for taking the time out of your day to read this article. Maybe you’re inspired to view emotions a bit differently.

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